Mickey Thomas: Shooting for the Stars!

By Jeb Wright

Mickey Thomas’ voice has been blasting out of the airwaves for longer than he would probably care to disclose.  His unique sounding voice has served him well over the course of many genres.  From the huge Elvin Bishop hit, “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” to the Jefferson Starship classics “Jane” and “Find Your Way Back,” to the chart toppers he sang in Starship, Mickey continues to be a class act and a consummate professional. 

Now, after twenty years (that’s two decades), Thomas will release a new album under the moniker Starship featuring Mickey Thomas on Loud & Proud Records.  The album is a perfect mix of ‘80s Starship ballads and late ’70s Jefferson Airplane rockers.  Thomas, vocally, is as strong as ever and, emotionally, he is excited to play the new songs live.

Teaming up with Mickey on both the production and songwriting on the album is former Dokken and current Foreigner bassist Jeff Pilson.  Together, the two musicians have created a great rock album that is sure to please Mickey’s fans. 

In the interview that follows, Mickey takes time to discuss the new album and his new record deal in great detail.  He also takes us back in time and shares how he joined Jefferson Starship and how the backlash led to a great song that became an early example of the ‘F’ word appearing on a smash hit album. 

Jeb: It has been two decades since Starship released an album.  Mickey, what the hell took you so long?

Mickey: Oh God, that is a multifaceted question.  First of all, Starship disbanded and then I reformed the band with a new lineup back in the early ‘90s.  The first couple of years I focused on rebranding the band and going out and touring and getting re-established.  I have started a new Starship project many times over the course of time but never finished one, for various reasons.  The biggest single reason is because…I’m a huge sports fan…so everything, to me, is teamwork, just like in sports. 

I would start a project, and the songs might be great, but I didn’t have the right producer, or I would have the right producer and the songs were not right.  I could have the right songs and the right producer, but there was no management involved, or no label interested.  All of the crucial parts never came together, so the more time that goes by, the higher the bar gets.  You have to make a great album and then it falls apart, and two more years go by, and you put even more pressure on yourself to make it really, really, really great.  Finally, all the elements came together with this album and I connected with all of the right people. 

Sometimes you get trapped by what you’re most recent success was.  I think I had been, maybe even unconsciously, wanting to make a record that would be more in keeping with where Starship was at at the end of the ‘80s.  I realized, through my experience with Jeff, that I have to get back to the base and the core.  I had to get back to the Jefferson Starship sound.  I wanted to rock and I wanted it to have a harder edge and I wanted to go back to where it all started for me. 

Great management came along in Toby Clainos.  The final, biggest, missing element, Loud & Proud Records, came along.  The owner, Tom Lipsky, was very patient with us and he allowed us to make the record we wanted to make.  We are now with Loud & Proud and we have a team that is going to work.  

Jeb:  Are these songs new, or were they gathering dust over the last twenty years?

Mickey:  Some of the songs are older than others, but I wouldn’t say they have been gathering dust very long.  The oldest might be five years old.  The last song we did was a song that came up right at the 11th hour called “Technicolor Black and White.” We threw that one together really fast and it may be my favorite cut on the album.  It came on so fast and it is really exuberant and it has that vibe of just getting in the room and jamming.  It is almost like a jam tune, man. 

Jeb: I like that song and when I listened to it I made a note that says, ‘This is a grooving rocker.’  How much did Jeff Pilson have to do with songs like that?

Mickey:  I think Pilson has a real knack, or gift, where he can write and produce a song that is quintessential classic rock sounding, but still make it a new song.  It is new, but it sounds like something you’ve been listening to for thirty years. 

Jeb:  This album has some harder edges, but there are great Mickey Thomas ballads too.  This may be one of the most cohesive albums, start to finish, Starship has done.  It works as a complete album.

Mickey:  I think 100% it is the most cohesive album, and the album with the most substance of any Starship album I have been involved with.  Some of the mid to late ‘80s Starship hits—the big stuff—got their fair share of criticism, but we set out at that time to make radio friendly, commercial songs.  We wanted to reinvent the Starship for that mode in that time and it worked great for us.  As great as those songs are, for that time period, they are not as timeless as a lot of the great classic rock music.  They are not as timeless as “Jane” or “Find Your Way Back.”  I wanted to make this album one where we went back and made rock and roll songs.  I wanted to reinvent the band again, but to make it closer to the way we started out. 

Jeb:  Was Pilson poking you with a stick to go back there?

Mickey: He really didn’t have to.  When Jeff and I got together it just clicked.  We had this chemistry where we realized, right away, that we were on the same page.  Without having to talk about things, or discuss it, we wanted the same things. 

Jeb: Starship was softer than Jefferson Starship.  Starship was more pop.  The title track to this album is a song that would have been great to bridge the gap between the Jefferson Starship sound and the Starship sound.

Mickey: I think the title track is one, and I think “You Never Know” is a song that harkens to the mid-80s Starship sound, too.  “Loveless Fascination” definitely does.  I love the title to that song and that is how it became the title track.  To me, that phrase spoke to me and I felt I could interpret that many ways.  The artwork on the album was influenced by the concept of “Loveless Fascination.” 

Jeb: How so? 

Mickey: I had sort of a primitive working of the artwork that I threw out to the artist, IOANNIS.  He came back with something more positive and much more artsy. 

Jeb:  I am looking at the cover.  Where is the connection between this awesome colorful painting and the words “Loveless Fascination?”  I am drawing a blank.  

Mickey:  I had a dream—I probably fell asleep thinking about “Loveless Fascination.”  I had a dream about this Mandrill—this colorful ape—sitting in this lush jungle in front of a jungle pool just staring at his own image in the pool and being mesmerized and fascinated by it.  I woke up thinking, “What was that?”  Then it hit me, it was about “Loveless Fascination.”  The ape was fascinated by his own image, but was there love involved?  Did he love himself? Was he capable of loving himself, or his image, or was he just fascinated by his own image?  I started thinking that would be some great artwork.  I expressed that to IOANNIS and he took it to another level. 

Jeb: That would make a great old fashioned album cover because it is so colorful and great.  You have done the impossible with IOANNIS and made a great cover that is even great looking at the CD booklet, or jpeg, size.  That is quite an accomplishment in this day and age of small art work. 

Mickey: I know.  I am very happy with that too.  I had a very clear mental image of what the cover was going to be and IOANNIS more than fulfilled it. 

Jeb: Musically, that song is classic Mickey Thomas.  It starts with a great guitar part…

Mickey: It is a definite riff song. 

Jeb: After that opening riff you come in with that vocal part—it’s not even words, it’s just that sound.  It is so Mickey Thomas.  Do you even have to work at that anymore or is it just second nature? 

Mickey: My little signature calling card, so to speak!  It is not effortless because it takes a certain amount of work, time and takes, usually, to get it to where it feels effortless.  What I like to do, usually, is to go in and really learn it and sings bits and parts, over and over and over, and do lots of takes.  I like to make a composite of all the best bits.  Once I’ve got it where I want it, then I like to go out in the studio and let it all rip in one take.  It may sound effortless, but there is a lot of preproduction that goes into the effortlessness. 

Jeb:  You have been out of the record game for twenty years.  Your career, clear back to “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” with Elvin Bishop was about hit singles.  Then you had the singles with Jefferson Starship and the number one tunes with Starship.  Today, this kind of music is not found on the hit singles charts. 

Mickey: It is tough for artists of our ilk.  There is a lot of ageism that exists in the music business.  If you’re over 40 then forget about it.  It is a struggle to get your music out there and figure out a way to make it relevant and to get as many people as possible to hear it. 

I was so happy to get with Loud & Proud because Lipsky has a clue, he gets it.  The tough part of getting a new Starship record made was finding someone who wanted to do it.  The labels would say, “Mickey’s got a great voice but…really?  A Starship record…I don’t think so.”  Tom Lipsky gets what we are doing and thank God that he does.  I believe we have a record that is really fresh and that the songs just pop right out at you. 

Jeb: How did you meet Tom and get with Loud & Proud?

Mickey: There is a young man named Toby Clainos out of San Francisco.  His father has been involved in the music business for many, many years. His name is Nicolas Clainos.  He was a music business attorney and he worked with Bill Graham.  He ran Bill Graham Productions for several years after his death.  Toby is his son, and I met Toby through Eddie Money, who is a friend of mine.  Even though Toby is young, he is 35-ish, he gets and understands classic rock music, as he grew up with it. 

I knew there was a label called Roadrunner, which Lipsky used to work with.  Roadrunner was the place that I wanted to be, as they got it.  Toby got a dialogue going with Tom about a year and a half ago.  Tom was interested and when he heard what we were doing, musically, he became very interested.  He told Toby that in 2013, he will be doing Loud & Proud, and he said he would sign us. 

Jeb: There is no BS with those guys.  They are real people and they are honest with their artists.  I think they are going to do great things with the music we love. 

Mickey:  There is no BS and they are great to work with.  I know a lot of guys who are in my genre who make great records and nobody hears them.  We’ve got to find a way to get it out there.  I think we are in the right place with Loud & Proud. 

Jeb: The single, “It’s Not the Same as Love” is quintessential Jefferson Starship. 

Mickey:  It has the entire element, doesn’t it?  I love that.  I like that kind of spacy intro and then, in the breakdown, in the middle, before the solo, we harken back to that, which is very ‘70s rock and then it goes into the ‘80s with a Starship/Foreigner type of riff.  When I first heard that song I knew it was our opening cut.  It sets the tone for the album.  Sure enough, that is what it is. 

Jeb:  Talk about “Nothing Can Keep Me From You” and the opening with the choir. 

Mickey:  I have a gospel background.  My mentor was a gospel singer who introduced me to Elvin Bishop and got me into his band.  I have roots in Gospel and I really love that kind of singing.  The great soul singers of the ‘60s are my greatest influences. 

We recorded “Nothing Can Keep Me From You” and it obviously didn’t have that a capella opening.  I was thinking back to songs through the years that were attention getters and I thought, “The a capella intro to ‘We Built This City’ was a real attention getter.”  So, even though it is very different than that, I wanted to do that type of intro, and it works really great. 

Jeb:  How many of these songs will make the set list live?

Mickey: I want to do three, or four, of these live.  I love these songs so much that I am thinking I could do a five minute medley where we play parts of three, or four, more songs.  We are playing a Starship gig in Manhattan and we are going to feature a lot of new cuts, probably six, or seven, in that show. 

The other night, my wife and I were sitting around and we said, “Let’s have a few glasses of wine and listen to the whole album again.”  Man, every song stands up.  I am trying to be objective about it, and you don’t want to toot your own horn too much, but I don’t hear any filler material. 

Jeb: I don’t hear you just saying your vocals are great, which they are, but rather that the songs all stand on their own. 

Mickey:  The entire album, the vibe, the arrangement, the playing and the sequence of the songs is all great.  I don’t want to be egotistical, but the idea is to make a great album, as that is what we strived to do, which is why it took so damn long.  I really think it is a great album. 

Jeb:  I find it interesting that you came from a Gospel background and then joined Elvin Bishop, both of which are a long, long way from Jefferson Starship.  When you got asked to join were you perplexed why they wanted you?  Did you know that your voice would work in that sort of context?

Mickey: Definitely not!  It happened just as a bolt from the blue because I didn’t know anybody in Jefferson Starship.  Aside from the fact that I lived in the Bay Area and they were based there…I had never met them.  I got a phone call out of the blue from Paul Kantner asking me if I would be interested in coming down and meeting the band, singing a little bit and talking about it and seeing how it goes.  I thought, “Really?  The Jefferson Starship, how in the hell is that going to work?”  About all I knew about them at that point—of course I knew about the Airplane—but all I knew from this band was “Miracles” and these other kind of soft songs.  They were nice songs, but they were ballads.  I am coming out of the Elvin Bishop band which is kick ass blues, soul and rock and I didn’t have any idea how this could possibly work.

I was very hesitant.  I was getting ready to go into the studio and do a solo album with Bill Szymczyk, who was producing the Eagles at that point.  I was very excited about that.  About three months went by.  I would go and meet with them and we would jam a little bit and I would think, “I just don’t know.”   I really didn’t know, but in their minds, they were thinking that I was playing hard to get.  I really wasn’t playing hard to get, but the more I didn’t commit to them, the more they wanted me!  Finally, I thought, “Okay, I talked to Bill and he told me to give it a shot and that we will put the solo album on hold until after I put the first Jefferson Starship album out.”  I went and I seriously got into it.

Jeb:  Your vocals on “Jane” were very powerful. 

Mickey: The first song that we rehearsed, and the first song we recorded, was “Jane.”  That was the first single on the album and it was the calling card for the new Jefferson Starship…somehow this all worked. It still is a very powerful song.  I’m really proud of “Jane.”  It is one of those songs where you catch lightening in a bottle.  I feel so lucky that over the span of my career there are a half a dozen gems there.  “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” is a great song.  “Find Your Way Back,” “Jane,” “Sara” and “We Built This City” are such well-known songs. 

Even though they are very different than the other songs that I mentioned, songs like “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us” and “Sara” meant a lot to people.  All the time I get people telling me, “That was our song” or “That is the song we had our first kiss to.”  It is neat to have people tell me that sort of thing. 

Jeb:  I am going to tell you, honestly, I didn’t like “We Built This City.”  Even though “Sara” was a ballad and pop, it was still a great song. 

Mickey: It has really interesting chords…”Sara” is a cool song. 

Jeb: “We Built This City” was just so pop oriented.  I mean, I get it, totally, but it was such a departure from, say songs like “Jane.” 

Mickey: That song was not for everyone.  Yesterday, I was just telling this to some of the guys in the band, as they didn’t even know this…What attracted me to that song, when I first heard it, was the lyrics in the verse.  I thought they were really interesting lyrics.  The song, originally, didn’t have that chorus.  The part that says “We built this city” was not even a part of the song. 

I pitched the song to the band and the producer, Peter Wolf, said, “I like it, but it has no chorus.”  He wrote the chorus, which probably is what made the song a huge smash and a number one single. At the same time, it may have taken a bit away from the integrity of the song, in a way.  It was a double edged sword, but would I take it back?  Hell no!  

Jeb: Those verses were written by a pretty damn good lyricist. 

Mickey: Bernie Taupin is pretty damn good; I would say so [laughter].

Jeb:  I want to end talking about a deep album cut from Jefferson Starship.  I love this song to this day. Tell me about “Stairway to Cleveland.”

Mickey: Paul Kantner and I both loved the post Punk era and we really shared that with each other. We would listen to a lot of that type of music and when we would be in a certain city we would try to find local bands that were doing that kind of stuff.  We were in Cleveland and we met this guy named Paul Warren, who was kind of an under the radar kind of guy who had this great Punk attitude. We went to see him play and he had this song that said, “Fuck You!  We do what we want!”  Paul loved that. 

We were also getting a little bit of slack from some of the critics, at that point in time that were not altogether happy with my presence in the band.  They were saying, “Where is Grace? Where is Marty?  Who is this guy?”  We came up with this idea, “You can say you don’t like us, you don’t like this.  Tell me how to wear my hair… Fuck you!  We do what we want.”  “Stairway to Cleveland” is not even mentioned in the lyrics of the song.  It was a lot of fun making that song. 

Jeb: You stuck it out and have kept this alive all these years.  You may have initially wondered if it would work, but I want to ask you what it means to you at this point in time. 

Mickey: It means everything to me.  I am so proud of this new record.  Of course you want everyone to hear it and you want it to be a success, but in my heart, if nobody else hears it, I know I am happy with it.  As far as still being able to tour and play as Starship featuring Mickey Thomas after all of these years, I can honestly say that I enjoy it more than I ever have than at any point in my life.  There is much less pressure these days, as there was twenty, or thirty, years ago.  I feel like I am the master of own destiny and the captain of my own ship.  Man, I am just so grateful.  I, honest to God, feel twenty years younger than my real age.  I have no end in sight. I’m just loving life.