Listening to the Band on the Mike and Micky Show
Bassist extraordinaire John Billings is a longtime member of the House of Stathopoulo family of musicians and for the first time since 2013, we caught up with Billings during his summer tour with The Mike and Micky Show--featuring Monkees legends Michael Nesmith and Mickey Dolenz--to talk about Billings' new Epiphone Thunderbird Vintage PRO and what's been going on behind the scenes. Though the tour only lasted through June 2018, the buzz about the tour shows know signs of subsiding. Fan and critic reviews have been ecstatic. And that's not surprising since Nesmith and Dolenz were an integral part of the Monkees sound. Billings caught us up on what the shouting was all about and if there might be more in the future.
So you're back on the road with Michael and Micky. Tell me about the set list this summer and what unique challenges its brought for you.
This summer was a new variation on the usual Monkees sort of stuff for us. It's the Mike and Micky show, so we're combining Monkees hits with songs from Michael's catalog during and after the Monkees era. I wasn't really familiar with much of Michael's personal stuff, so there was some learning for me to get up to speed for rehearsals. They had actually spent a few weeks rehearsing together, ironing out some vocals, and honing a set list before we even got the entire thing together at rehearsals in Los Angeles. A lot of work went into making this show a special event for hardcore fans and new fans to appreciate. It's been so cool seeing the dedicated fans getting excited to hear songs by Michael that were never performed live onstage. Also, there are 11 bodies up on that stage! We added Pete Finney on pedal steel and Paul Kramer as a utility player, covering banjo, acoustic, mandolin and fiddle. There's so much more sound than variations of the Monkees tours in the past. It's been amazing hearing it in this context.
What's a rehearsal like with Michael and Micky?
For our rehearsal period, we'd get to work between 9:30am and 11, get started on one or the other guy's material with them present. Early afternoon, we'd get the whole thing together, attacking songs and making some changes along the way. Some challenges were keeping everyone onstage on songs where that instrument wasn't present in the original track. Some of it was covering a vocal or a string line, or doubling up a guitar part. It's thick! Then we'd be done by 7pm and everyone would go attack cool LA dining spots. My favorite part of the day!
On the road, it was an easy schedule. We'd have a set soundcheck for VIP fans every day at 4:50, so we'd get to the venue around 3:30, check our personal stuff, tweak monitors, then bring in a small audience for their very own 45 minute sound check. We'll do some songs not in the show, take questions, introduce all the bodies up onstage as well as the crew. They can even make requests! It's a very cool fan experience. Dinner, then around a 100 minute show at 7:30 or 8pm. After the show, hang with the other guys in the band at a quiet bar or restaurant nearby.
What Epiphones were you using on tour?
This year I'm proud to have the latest Epiphone Thunderbird Vintage Pro out with me as well as my trusty blue Jack Casady bass. (Epiphone's Head of R&D) Richard Akers is using a different pickup design based on an older Thunderbird and I love it for this music. I'll play it for 70% of the show, then I do an acoustic set plus "Take A Giant Step" on the Casady for a darker vibe.
The crowd reaction was wonderful! Michael hasn't appeared onstage with the Monkees as much through the years, so there's always an excitement when he's on board. All ages are out there representing in the audience. We even had a young girl who couldn't have been more than 10 years old singing a verse of Micky's song "Going Down" on mic the other night! She killed it! Because of reruns, we have every generation here.
We've talked before about how The Monkees' original records were recorded at a time when Hollywood was just emerging as a recording center and that the Wrecking Crew studio group supported The Monkees on their early records. What kind of unique challenges --or perhaps ways of thinking--do those original records present to you?
For me, it's the way bass was played on those records. Everyone assumes all the bass was Carol Kaye and Joe Osborne. Some of it was, but most were played by the producers or on a few, Peter Tork. For me, it's that they're not always playing like a bass player would, more like a guy who played guitar but picked up bass for the session. So many of the lines were really melodic, a lot busier than bass tended to be on pop records in the following years. Some of the song's movement is coming more from the bass than any of the other instruments, so it's been really cool to get into that head space and not just "thumb the root or get the boot" sort of playing. Our producer Andrew Sandoval has access to most of the isolated tracks or stems, so I can really hear what was going on in the bass chair. It's cool to go back and hear those tracks! Sometimes it's so clean that it sounds like it could've been recorded recently. I love the stuff Chip Douglas played bass on. Go check out these songs, some of my favorites to reproduce have been "Good Clean Fun," "Sunny Girlfriend" (Chip Douglas), "You Told Me" (Chip Douglas), "Door Into Summer" (Chip Douglas), "You Just May Be The One" (Peter Tork), "St Matthew," "I'll Spend My Life With You" (Chip Douglas), "Take A Giant Step" (Larry Taylor), "Aunties Municipal Court" (Rick Dey), "What Am I Doing Hangin' 'Round" (Chip Douglas) and "I'm A Believer."
We've spoken in the past about the challenges of trying to bring 60s era bass tones to a modern stage. Why is that?
That's a tough one. I find if I push the tone closer to what I hear on the records, it gets lost out front. I was using Black Tape Nylons with a heavy pick on hollowbody basses back during the 2012-13 tours, but when I switched to roundwounds I felt like the pick attack was so much more prominent. I wanted to have those same strings on my Casady this tour for "St Matthews" and "Aunties Municipal Court," but we had trouble getting a hold of some during rehearsals, so I roll off the tone knob half way for that sound. With 'Rounds on the Thunderbird, I'll palm mute everything for the most part. On songs where I want to get a driven amp tone, I always go to my Way Huge Pork Loin with the input at 50% and dig in a bit more. I'm running direct through a Radial J48 after my TC Electronic Polytone 2 Noir, also using a Radial Bassbone switcher. But this time out--thankfully--here's a Beyer mic on one of the Trickfish 10" drivers for some meat. The combination of direct and mic'd is a little more realistic to my ears. I drive the amp pretty hard, so that when I dig in the preamp on the Trickfish it breaks up nicely. The Trickfish runs flat for the most part, but now that I brought the Thunderbird into the show, I find I do something I've never done before: roll off bass at 80hz. Who knew? It was pretty beefy and was over taking the stage, so I back down 80hz on the amp and it sits nicely.
Many classic acts don't worry too much about recreating the past while others are afraid to go very far astray. Michael and Micky have had more challenges to their sound than most bands but yet seem to find a way around them. Do they discuss those issues with the band and try to collaborate on ways around those dilemmas?
Michael really dives into that more so. He'll describe a feeling he's trying to get to and will articulate that to us any way he can. He's chasing memories of vibes he wanted to capture from all those years ago. He gets the biggest smile when we hit that mark! Micky loves to dive into the presentation of the song, the theater of it.
What makes them different in your view from modern musicians?
Those early recordings were in a time of pop pioneering, which to me made that decade so exciting. No rules! They'd try ideas, take risks, argue, create, take the time to explore the recording space and tweak the song until it was right. Wrecking Crew, Nashville A team guys, different musicians and producers. For me, that's what makes it so cool! The Beatles evolved in the same manner, trying to push recording boundaries and popular music. I feel like these guys along with the producers and writers involved were all trying to do that very thing--and they succeeded! Want proof? They're still here after 51 years and tomorrow night I'll be playing this show yet again.
What's next for these guys?
That's the mystery of the Monkees. You just never know. I can say with ease that these two are having the best time every night and love the reactions they're getting. They both have solo dates on their own throughout the year, but seeing this crowd reaction makes it hard to imagine they'll not do this again. I know I've had a total blast!
* Live photos courtesy of Sherri Hansen