Rival Sons Mike Miley: Just What is Classic Rock?

By: Justin Beckner

I’ve often found myself revisiting the question of, “what is classic rock?” Like most people looking for answers to life’s problems, I cracked open a beer and consulted the benevolent wizards at Wikipedia. They define classic rock as a radio format tailored to the 25-34 year old male demographic. And although I suppose that is true, I’ve always thought the genre of classic rock was defined by a certain sound. It’s much like Tipper Gore’s definition of obscenity, “I’ll know it when I hear it”. When I hear Rival Sons, I hear classic rock. Even though the band formed in 2009, their sound is timeless and a great reminder that we can still have great NEW classic rock music, even in 2014. In the following interview with drummer  Mike Miley, we find out how to survive as a classic rock band in 2014, how to stay true to vintage tone, and talk about the new Rival Sons record, The Great Western Valkyrie.

Tell me about The Great Western Valkyrie.  I understand it came together rather quickly.

We tracked The Great Western Valkyrie in January and February of 2014. It was about 6 weeks to track, mix, and master it. We wrote it on the spot, which is something we’ve always done in the past and it’s worked well for us. So there is really no writing process that happens before we go into the studio. We just write in the studio with tapes rolling and if we get something we like, we go with it. It’s like making a sandwich, if you know what you like, stay with it. It’s all about the feeling you put into it – some of the best songs ever written only have three chords. Once you find that formula, it’s just all about Jay putting the vocals on it and some extra guitar fluff. People are often impressed with the fact that we write on the spot but it’s really not all that impressive in my opinion. Even the jazz guys had a formula – it had melody and solos.

Do you feel that recording an album in a ‘set window’ allows the music to feel less stale?

That’s exactly what it is. It’s that context of visceral creativity that makes you wear your ability on your sleeve. When you’re under the gun, it does put you in a different mindset, it does cause arguments, and it does cause tension and pressure. The last two albums have gone down to the last couple days and we still had songs that were unfinished and we had to decide which ones to keep and which were not going to be on the record. It creates a lot of tension, but we trust each other enough to make good music. There’s so much crap out there that is just so formulaic. There’s like the same two writers writing everything that’s on the radio… It must be, because I keep hearing the same melody, the same groove, the same guitar sounds over and over. Even our shittiest album, to our standards, is better than that stuff.

It’s better than Katy Perry, dude.

It’s true, but you know what, she gets millions of people raising their fists, and club owners like her, 14 year old girls like her, and DJs love her a whole hell of a lot more than they like us. You’re with Classic Rock Revisited; you know we’re all going up a steep hill. None of us are flying jets to our next gig.

You guys are on a fucking death metal label. What’s it like being the black sheep of a death metal label?

Labels nowadays are a marketing machine and a distribution tool so it’s not like we’re coupled in or playing on compilations with Cannibal Corpse or Napalm Death; those bands aren’t on that label anymore, but they were at one time. At first we were taken back with it, like ‘what the hell are we doing on a death metal label’? But when it’s all said and done, we’re playing rock and roll shows and we have rock and roll people come out to our shows, although we do get 10 out of 10 reviews in Metal Hammer and these metal mags. Being on that label exposed us to a whole other genre of people that actually love rock and roll. When we tour Europe, we’ll see the dude with a tee shirt of one of those bands where you can’t pronounce the name because the font is just so metal at our shows, and loving it. I think that it’s benefitted us and Earache Records because initially it got a lot of attention. But at the end of the day, they’re just businessmen and a grindcore band would be lucky to sell 10,000 records in an entire album cycle. Labels need to make money because they don’t make money like they used to. I think that Earache has been smart to branch out, because now they have Blackberry Smoke and Temperance Movement and they’re kind of leaning over into the rock world a little more. Nuclear Blast is a similar label out of Germany. They have tons of metal labels, and then they have EDM and Electro pop; we almost signed with them.

When I was preparing for this interview, I asked the owner of CRR if he had any questions for you because he had interviewed you guys a long time ago. He only had one question, “Who the fuck do they think they are, kicking so much ass in 2014? Don’t they know that rock is dead?”

That’s awesome. Who do we think we are? I think we’re a bunch of audacious twats who are just trying to play a really old style of music in a new way. Rock and roll was basically gospel, rhythm and blues, and blues just turned up and played through electric amps. When you go back to Chuck Berry and Fats Domino and then into Buddy Holly and Elvis and the white guys doing it, at the same time you have guys like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page over in England listening to old Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters records going, “what are they doing?” The British Invasion just took it up to another level to where that’s what we call classic rock these days. It’s just rock and roll and all it is, is blues music played loud with a good beat and a passionate vocal delivery. It’s got to have a good guitar riff with some solos, there’s always a guitar solo... Grunge even had some blues in it. It was suburban white boy blues but that was a whole other thing. But who we are is just a bunch of passionate musicians who grew up with cool parents who turned us on to this old blues, soul, and R&B music.

I saw you guys on the cover of classic rock magazine. It’s funny to think of you guys as “classic rock” when you formed in 2009.

Yeah, they’ve put us on the cover twice actually, and the first time was with a CD of our greatest hits. I was thinking, I can barely make my car payments and we have a greatest hits record. That’s hilarious. And it’s not as if I’m some crazy heroin and cocaine addict who buys too many cars. We won’t ever sell 100 million records like Pink Floyd did, those days are gone. But the hope that I’ve latched onto is that maybe we can get 100 million spins on Spotify, I think that’s the new guard. I think you have to adapt, and that’s what makes us Classic Rock Revisited. We have this old mold of making real honest, blues-inspired, R&B music… but the new way to get it out is by tweeting and using social media. You have to understand that people are going to stream your music and people are going to download it for free. I mean, I ripped all of my dad’s albums onto 90 minute tapes when I was a kid. I was poor. That’s how I learned that music. I think Zeppelin benefitted more from me ripping their music because I ended up buying tee shirts.. and when I got into my 20s, I bought the CDs. I’ve probably bought about 5 copies of Zeppelin II. You’ve got to embrace the new era or you’re going to go down with the plane. My hope is that even if there are still a million people in the world who love rock and roll- which I believe there is … I believe there’s 10 million- but with 10 million people liking my band, I can have a career. Then we could travel the world. Southwest Asia has tons of rock and roll fans. There’s so many people tweeting from there and wanting to see us in Malaysia. Bands need to wise up nowadays. Napster kind of bitch-slapped the industry and changed the way we are exposed to new music. I think the old way was dying anyway, but people are still reluctant to tweet. Radio stations and venues who book you are now looking at how many followers you have on twitter and Facebook. You can’t be scared of it.

Tell me about your producer, Dave Cobb. What does he contribute to the Rival Sons sound?

He’s a gear nerd. He knows exactly what mic went through what compressor and into what tape machine to get the sound on “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. Scott would do his solo and Cobb would plug Scott into the same gear they used for the Beatles sound just to see what it would sound like. So we got to use a lot of the old techniques used by The Who, The Beatles and Led Zeppelin. When Glyn Johns was engineering all the Zeppelin stuff, he was ripping off Geoff Emerick, who was the Beatles guy. So everybody learned from everybody else back then. Duke Ellington said great artists steal, mediocre artists borrow. So they took what worked and improved on that. Cream was like one year before Zeppelin, and they had Ginger Baker who was the best drummer of that era… but listen to any of those Cream albums, they sound like shit, they’re mixed horribly, you can barely hear the drums, the guitars are all thin. Who the hell mixed that thing? They must have been on heroin. But the next year Zeppelin I came out and sonically blew everyone’s minds. We have 40 years on Led Zeppelin as far as the technological advances that we can use. John Bonham died before he could ever hear The Police do “Roxanne” or Phil Collins play “In the Air Tonight”.

Great Western Valkyrie is the fourth studio album by the American rock band Rival Sons. This release, which is the first effort to feature new bass player Dave Beste (in place of founding member Robin Everhart), was released in June 2014. 'Electric Man' is the first single from this highly anticipated Rival Sons… check it out!