SPEARHEAD'S MICHAEL FRANTI
interview and illustration by vinnie baggadonuts

MICHAEL FRANTI IS A RARE BIRD: AN ARTIST WHO NEVER COMPROMISED HIS POLITICS OR PRINCIPLES TO MAKE AN ALMIGHTY DOLLAR. HE'S PROVEN TO THE WORLD THAT YOU CAN MAKE THE ART YOU WANT TO MAKE WITHOUT HAVING TO KOWTOW TO A CORPORATE MONSTER'S NEEDS. AND HE'S HAD ONE OF THE MOST NOTICEABLE ARTISTIC EVOLUTIONS TO DATE, BEGINNING WITH THE POLITICALLY ANGRY BEATNIGS, THE EQUALLY AGGRESSIVE DISPOSABLE HEROES OF HIPHOPRISY, AND NOW THE SOULFUL, SLY STONE-ISH SPEARHEAD. READ ON AND SEE WHAT VINNIE FOUND OUT IN THEIR BRIEF PHONE CHAT.

Vinnie: Are you guys in Pennsylvania?

Michael: Yeah, Williamsburg, Pennsylvania. Williamsburg University.

V: You’re doing just one show there?

M: Yeah. We’re on tour now with this band called O.A.R.

V: Yeah.

M: It's all college gigs.

[MUSIC STARTS BLASTING IN THE BACKGROUND]

M: Hang on. I’m gonna walk out of the room so I can hear you. (pauses) Alright, go ahead.

V: Are you doing a national tour at venues other than colleges?

M: Um,.. we’re kinda just touring, you know? We started in Europe, went to Australia, and then the West Coast, then back to Europe, and now we’re doing the States. Then we’ll finish up the year by going back to Europe and Australia, and then Japan.

V: What’s the vibe been like at the shows this tour?

M: Well, it’s interesting because, when we started touring this year, it was just before the war started, and there was a lot of patriotism happening. As we were going through Europe and Australia and Japan, there were a lot of people vocal against the war. Since that time, we’ve been traveling in America, and it seems that the tide has really, really changed. People who were once saying, “Yeah, we have to follow our President,” have now been saying, “Hey-- our President lied to us! Saddam didn’t have anything to do with this! There were no ‘weapons of mass destruction’. Seems like two or three young people are being killed every day in Iraq. What’s it all about?” So, people are starting to ask a lot of really tough questions. The country’s really changing.

V: Is that a relief to you?

M: Yeah, it's a wonderful relief, but we still have a long way to go. I’ve seen signs; one said “Support Our Troops.” We were in Columbia, Missouri, which is pretty much Middle America. When we were there in the Spring, the sign just said “Support Our Troops.” But this last time we were through there, it said, “Support Our Troops: Bring Them Home Now.” So, it’s a difficult thing, because our feelings have changed, but no one knows the answer to these problems. I mean, if we just pull out of Iraq completely, what have we left that country with? How are we going to fix this mess that we’ve gotten into without having to spend hundreds of billions of dollars over the next 20 years? I don’t see any other way around it.

V: Yeah.

M: So, yeah, it’s all a relief; but hindsight is 20/20. A lot of people are looking back now and saying, “Gee, I wish we’d have never gotten involved in this.”

V: Well, do you ever wake up and feel that you’re living deja vu, because you pretty much began your career under a Bush administration.

M: Yeah!

V: (laughs) And now, here we are a decade later, and you’re back under another Bush administration.

M: Yeah. “Bush War I” and “Bush War II”.

Both: (laughing)

M: Unfortunately, politics are cyclical. Before that (Desert Storm), we had Vietnam. I’ve had a chance to speak with a lot of veterans around the country-- veterans from Vietnam, veterans from the first Gulf War-- and a lot of them tell me the same story; that they went in to the military because they didn’t have other opportunities that were available to the rest of the world. They went overseas because they thought they were doing a good thing, at first. But by the time they left, they felt like they’d been tricked and deceived and put in harm’s way over an unjust war. I think that that’s something, when somebody volunteers their life for the nation, I think that the least we could do is use every form of diplomacy possible before we put them in harm’s way.

V: Absolutely.

M: And we didn’t do that in this case.

V: When you travel in the States, is there any reluctance from venues because of how political your work is?

M: No, because we do a kick-ass fuckin’ show!

Both: (laughing)

M: At the end of the day, that’s what people want from music, and we do a great, great, great, great dance party. It just so happens that our lyrical content are seeds that we plant to get you to think about what’s happening in the world. But, the musical terrain has changed quite a bit. When I was a kid, there was Stevie Wonder; there was Marvin Gaye; there was Sly Stone; there was Carlos Santana, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan,.. even the Beatles! Even though their music wasn’t overtly political, there was always a message that the system may be fucked up, but let’s at least treat each other with respect. Let’s love one another. And that’s just not apparent in music these days.

V: Yeah.

M: I think that has a lot to do with all the corporate mergers that have taken place. You have Island Records, which was once the home of Bob Marley and U2-- very political groups-- and it gets bought by Polygram, and they merge with Def Jam and Interscope, and Interscope gets eaten up by Universal, and Universal gets swallowed up by Vivendi. Then, a couple of weeks ago, NBC bought all of that! So, you have record labels that are beholden to the shareholders, rather than the Goddess of Music.

V: Man, every one of those radical artists you mentioned is exactly what Spearhead reminds me of, moreso than any other means you’ve expressed yourself through. Spearhead is like Sly & the Family Stone.

M: Yeah!

V: And I read an interview where you talk about reggae music, too, and how the musicians inspired you to perform. The way you explained it was brilliant. Bob Marley’s music, his message came across simply. He didn’t try to complicate things for his listeners. Were you into that idea early on, or was this something you picked up late in life?

M: It’s something that’s really grown for me. When I started, my political voice was really coming from a place of anger. It wasn’t until having the experience of going out and talking to everyday people on the street-- you know, bus drivers, garbage men, school teachers, students, parents, veterans-- that I really got the sense of the fact that politics is really about humanity. It’s about people saying, “We want the basic freedoms to do what we want to do.” Sometimes there are things that get in the way of that.

V: You know, I interviewed Saul Williams a month ago, and you two both seem on the same page now. Both of you started out in a place of anger, and now you’re both coming to a place where you’re looking at things like humanity and spirituality. It’d be absolutely sick if you two collaborated. (laughs)

M: (laughs) Yeah. We’re good friends. We’ve done a lot of shows together in the last couple years, but we have yet to do anything on wax. I’m sure that’ll come up on one of our next records.

V: Have you thought about taking the Power to the Peaceful Fest on a national tour?

M: We thought about it. The thing that we’re trying to do right now is organize it so that other people do it in other cities on the same day. But we thought about doing it as a tour, too, and we still might, if we can get the right cast of people to do it.

V: I’d love to see it.

M: Yeah.

V: So, after the tour, what are you going to be doing?

M: Well, the tour is never-ending.

Both: (laughing)

M: But, we’re about to make a video for “We Don’t Stop” in the five days that we have off before we go to Europe. That’ll be a fun change of pace. Then we go to Europe; around Christmas time, we’ll hit Australia. Then we’re gonna do a benefit show that Jack Johnson is putting on in Hawaii, to try and get recycling happening on the island, because there really is no statewide recycling program in Hawaii. So, we’re gonna try and raise some funds and awareness for it.

V: Does your daughter get to go on tour with you at all?

M: Oh,.. my sons. (laughs) My two sons.

V: You have two sons?

M: Yeah. And they both come on the road quite often. My oldest son is in high school now, which is quite a kick, because I was very young when I had him. I was, like, 20 years old. So now I have a kid who’s turning me on to music, and I’m still young enough to embrace it. (laughs) He’s bringing me all the latest hip-hop and funk bands, and it’s really cool. My youngest son, who’s four, spends a lot of time on the road with us. But he’s at home right now.

V: Wow! So, what kind of stuff has he gotten you into?

M: Well, he turned me on to Aesop Rock, who’s a really cool artist. He also turned me on to this woman named Mirah, who’s a really great songwriter-- I believe she's on K Records. She plays guitar and writes these amazing songs. This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb-- he turned me on to them, too. It’s a super-hot underground punk group. They have this massive following, and they’re really cool.

V: Does he help you pick your opening acts?

M: Sometimes. I tried to get Mirah to open for our next show in San Francisco, but she wasn’t available.

V: Man, don’t take this the wrong way, but you seem so young. It’s like you never age. Every time I hear one of your records, I don’t think about it. I’m always like, “He’s gotta be 25 or 26 now.”

M: (laughs) I’m 37 now!

V: So, what do you think will be the evolution of you? What are you going to do next to keep it going, like how Spearhead was a step. Will there be a Michael Franti mass media conglomerate?

Both: (laughing)

M: I’ve thought about that, actually. I’ve been shooting a lot of photographs and videos, so I’m working in that medium more now. But I love music so much, I can’t imagine doing anything else. I try to remain a student of music, and that’s the thing that keeps me young, creatively. I just started playing guitar two years ago. I’ve used computers in my studio a long time, but I’ve just now started to explore them in other ways, like with video editing and Photoshop and writing more, about the world and my observations. I’m putting the finishing touches on a book of lyrics and photos and writings about my observations of life on the road. It’s sort of a chronological history, as well as lyric book.

V: Do you know when that’s coming out?

M: No, not yet. We just finished it, so as soon as we send it off to the printer, it’ll be sold on our website and at shows.

V: Alright. One last question for you. You only started playing guitars two years ago, but I read somewhere that you’ve been building them for awhile.

M: Oh, yeah! Man, I’ve been building guitars for a long time. I haven’t actually built one in several years, because I’ve been on the road. But I started in 1989 with a job at this place called Subway Guitars in Berkeley. The owner of this guitar store was an old hippy, and his idea was to make the proletariat guitar for the masses. He wanted to make really good, well-functioning guitars that stayed in tune and were easy to play, but were also affordable for any kid who wanted to learn. So, we would get parts from other guitars and reassemble them into low-budget, quality guitars. I learned everything about how to make a guitar, but I never learned how to play a single chord the whole time I did it. It wasn’t until recently that I said, “Man, I’m really missing out. I should learn how to play.” (laughs)

FEEL THE SPEARHEAD VIBRATION HERE.

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