Mike Tramp - Songs Of White Lion, Summer 2023
Mike Tramp is a hugely gifted singer-songwriter. Cast from the same as mould as Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Neil Young, his solo work over the last generation has been consistently and wholly outstanding. It’s therefore interesting, and perhaps personally frustrating for Mike, that he routinely gets drawn in to discussing White Lion, the band he and guitarist Vito Brattas set up in 1983 but which ended a decade later. What is perhaps even more interesting is that despite this frustration Mike has chosen to record a new album, Songs Of White Lion, a reimagined collection of some of the band’s biggest songs. We catch up with Mike at home on his farm in Denmark to get the full story around this incredible record…
Your new album, Songs Of White Lion, is released on 14th April. With now only one week to go, what sort of thoughts are going through your mind at album release time?
Well it’s quite different to the old days when you were waiting for the album to hit the stores and fans would be lining up outside. Whether it was Tower Records or wherever, it was just something really special. Now you go ‘What stores? Where can I go and get this record?’. Even in my little country, there’s almost nothing left of those kind of stores. But to answer your question, obviously I’m excited because I hate to talk about something people can’t get their hands on or relate to when they read an interview or so on. It’s been a long time coming for this album and it brings back a lot of great memories but there is also a lot of heartache in this.
Now this is an album of big White Lion songs, and as part of the campaign for this record you say that you’re not 26 anymore, that you don’t sing like you’re 26, and that you want to sing the songs that you wrote over 40 years ago exactly the way you are today. Tell me a bit more about what that means.
It’s kind of like the return of Indiana Jones where are you sit down in the movie theatre and he comes on, you want him to be the age he is supposed to be. It’s supposed to be a continuation of the saga and stuff like that. I’m singing these songs as close to the originals as possible. I mean, I wrote the songs, I wrote the melodies, I own the melodies and I want people to get the feeling that when I’m walking out on stage that they see a man who has lived 40 years since he wrote these songs. There’s lots of storytelling in those 40 years both between the songs but also in the songs. When I went in to record the songs when I was 26 or 28, my life was completely different and the world was a very different place. We thought we were immortal, the hair was very long etc etc. Now when I go in and sing the songs, first of all the songs are in my DNA and they sit in my spine and I know them inside out but it’s a different approach. There is a comfort and knowledge: now I own the songs before they own me. They pulled me into the track and live they pulled me around the stage but now I have the reins of the songs, I control them and I deliver them with maturity. It’s basically like if you could do most things over you would do them in a different way. Of course you have the knowledge and hindsight is 20/20, and a lot of this album is based on the history of White Lion, the years that went after and how I toured the world for 10 years with just an acoustic guitar around my neck. All that stuff is now in the songs and in the performance of those songs.
There is a huge amount of anticipation around this record and there is lots of speculation from fans around what they expect this album to be, many of them expecting this to be a more relaxed record. But what I would suggest is that this is a record full of surprises! Right from the opening track Lady Of The Valley, fans will see that all the impact, passion, energy and intensity is still there. This is far from a sedate affair. But they not a straight covers. There is perhaps more of a classic rock sound and I think what Marcus Nand has done from a guitar perspective is wonderful because it remains respectful to what Vito Brattas did with the original but it doesn’t sound 80s. It has more of a timeless quality. Was it a conscious thing to make the album not sound like it was made in the 80s?
I think your lead up is phenomenal! I’m sitting here freezing and I’ve got goosebumps down my back. I can understand fans being curious about this based on Mike Tramp’s 13 solo albums and based on the fact that I’ve toured the world with an acoustic guitar because that’s what the budget allowed. The album is full power and as full on as the original songs because it was always my point to play the songs note for note but just in a different key that would suit my voice. And I’m happy that you mentioned Marcus because he’s the reason that I’m able to do this because I said “If we’re going to play Wait, if were going to do Little Fighter, we have to play these guitar solos note for note and we can’t bend them out of shape”. And so he worked on that for a long time. That’s my respect to both the guitar player and also my songwriting partner Vito Brattas. It’s not necessarily like I went in there with a lot of things on the list. I think that it’s just when you’re playing the songs for the second time with all that knowledge and the ease to hold back, you’re not trying so hard. I was trying very, very hard back in 1988. I was almost trying too hard but now I don’t need to prove anything. David Coverdale doesn’t come out and say I’m not 26 anymore but I do come out and say there’s no way I can be Mike Tramp in 1987. I’m very happy with where I am right now. I wish I could now have 24 more years of where I am right now because I feel like life is making a lot more sense to me or at least I understand what to do, what not to do, what to say, what not to say. My approach is just to say “It’s not needed, we don’t need any elevating drum riser, we don’t need any pyro, we don’t need any backing tracks - we’re just going to go out there because I believe in the songs”. The songs have now shown that they have stood the test of time and lyrics that I wrote back in the 80s. Thank God that I didn’t sing about tits and ass but that I sang about something that I can be proud of today!
The original White Lion albums Fight To Survive, Pride, Big Game, and Mane Attraction are amazing records with their power, fun and production, but one thing that really jumped out for me with Songs Of White Lion is the pure strength of the songwriting, and I think this is something that really comes through and that a lot of fans will really notice. I think it’s also important to pick up on that word that you used a moment ago – ‘storytelling’. To what extent is it important for you that people to really see the depth of the songwriting in the songs?
First of all, now I really understand why I’m doing this album. The comments and points that you have made, nobody ever said that about the original albums. That was basically because at that time being in a hard rock band or an 80s band, it was about extravaganza and stories that you were telling that had nothing to do with the music – just that whole party attitude that Van Halen and Mötley Crüe created. We had to entertain in interviews. We shouldn’t answer the questions or be smart – we just have to entertain and look cool and stuff like that! That was always a problem for me. You can pick out a picture of me from that time and put it next to Vince Neil, Brett Michaels or Sebastian Bach. Vito and I knew that we were part of the 80s but we also knew that as songwriters we also wanted to go somewhere else with it. We just weren’t able to do it at that time, we were looking much more towards Journey, Kansas or Foreigner but of course we had come up together with with big LA bands like Mötley Crüe, RATT, Poison etc. So that’s where we were but now it’s almost like I’m getting the true reward for the songwriting that Vito and I did. Maybe it just didn’t come of age until now. So that is the reason why I’ve done the album. I feel it doesn’t always belong in the same box as the rest of the 80s when it was just all thrown in there with big hair, tight pants and stuff like that. There’s no Lady Of The Valley on a Poison album and there’s no Little Fighter on a RATT album. That’s not to diss those bands – I love those bands, they were my peers and they were our competitors and we had great times, but Vito and I set out to be a different band. It was a very obvious fight to survive but then we got to the Pride album we wrote some very strong songs and we got into the MTV world, on the radio and stuff like that and we had hits and massive success. We always wanted to be that band but at the same time we were 26 and 27 years old and everything was new to us.
Your solo work is simply incredible and I would compare your approach and delivery to be similar to artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, John Cougar Mellencamp - essentially very acoustic driven, very song driven and very different to White Lion, and I’m guessing that this style has possibly always been at the core of who you are. What I therefore wanted to ask is in taking the opportunity to revisit and re-record this incredible body of work, was there anything about the original recordings that you wanted to correct or that you wanted to change because even at that time it perhaps wasn’t 100% what ‘Mike Tramp’ was all about?
There was a great questions! You almost brought tears to my eyes when you talk about your observations of my solo albums and who I am as an artist because people always think that once you do something after the success you’ve had with the band you came from, you’re going to do something different. What people don’t know is that when I walked in to White Lion, regardless of how long my hair was, I was that the same person that I was after White Lion. That was my upbringing in Denmark. I am a campfire guitar player – at the youth club and stuff like that – I grew up on Dylan, I grew up on Neil Young and I grew up on the Danish folk artists. That is my foundation and that is also the man that sat across from Vito Brattas. I sat there in my own Dylan, Tom Petty, Springsteen – they are all my heroes – and Vito sat with a Stratocaster on the other side of the table. I would give him the melodies and simple chords. I have the cassette tapes here in a box of when we wrote the songs and you will hear me strum, and then Vito’s Stratocaster taking over. That’s how the songs came. Once again, there was no interest for any interviewer or magazine back in 1988 to hear that story. Nobody was interested in hearing that that’s where I came from and my upbringing in Denmark. It’s just that I walked out on stage in tiger stripe spandex pants and it sort of took the seriousness away from who I was inside. So jump to the question about correcting things, the big thing was that after Fight To Survive of which we had been signed to a massive record label in the US. Three months later they told us that they weren’t going to release the album. Then we were dead almost throughout the whole of 1984. Our managers managed to do a deal where we were able to license it in Japan and we signed a new record deal in Japan. Now the album started being imported to France, Germany and the UK, rising on the underground and coming up as number one on the import charts and featuring in Kerrang! So the band broke in a very hardcode way which really cemented the band. Now our American fans were importing the album from Europe! Then Vito and I started writing new songs and for the next 2 years, what would be the Pride album would be our live set. So when we went into record the album the Pride album it was like second nature. Then we went out on the road for 2 years supporting the Pride album. We did some phenomenal shows around Europe – three shows at the marquee – and then suddenly, almost 2 years into that tour the record company sent a message to our managers saying that they needed a new album from White Lion. Vito and I, 2 days after we finished the last show on an 18 month tour, go into a hotel and write the Big Game album in 10 days. We never had that time that we had with the Pride album before we went into the studio. We didn’t even get a chance to demo the songs, we just went straight into the studio. To answer your question, yes, later on in my life I started talking about Big Game being an unfinished album. When Howard Johnson in Kerrang! put the album down maybe he saw something that we hadn’t seen at that time. Later on it was very clear to Vito and I. We’re not unhappy with the songwriting but the production is an unfinished album. That’s why it’s very important for me to have songs like Going Home Tonight, Cry For Freedom, Living On The Edge and Little Fighter on this Songs Of White Lion album.
You’ve been a solo artist since 1998, apart from a short break when you toured under the name Mike Tramp’s White Lion and eventually under the name White Lion, releasing the album Return Of The Pride in 2008. Did people make it difficult for you to move on from White Lion? Because I wonder to what extent this album is about saying “I know you want me to perform White Lion songs but I am going to dictate the terms on how will do so”?
Everything you say makes sense! Your questions are incredible in the way that they hit me straight in my soul because it’s what I’ve been living with since I walked out on stage in 2001 with my my telecaster around my neck and starting performing my first solo album. At the Marquee it said ‘Tonight White Lion’ and I was sat on the bus furious. From that day on, that sticker has been slapped on every poster. It has never left me! Even though I don’t like to visit that time, 2005 to 2009 is the first time I’m getting pulled back into the arena to fight this White Lion thing and I’m so not ready for it. But there was a part of me saying ‘the show must go on and your solo career isn’t exactly buying you a new Ferrari’, not that that was the plan. It started with Mike Tramp’s White Lion and then some smart ass attorney shows up saying ‘I can trademark the name, you can perform as White Lion’ and the second I went out and was announced as White Lion, Vito says “No, you can’t!”. It’s basically just a sign from God saying ‘This is not what the plan was! You’re a solo artist! You said goodbye and closed the band White Lion. You packed it away and put it under the bed! You’re not supposed to go back and do White Lion anymore!’. There are so many signs of when I revisit that 2005 to 2009 period where I’m already making the band sound like early Whitesnake or UFO –a much harder edge and taking away the polish of what White Lion were. That instantly should be telling me ‘you shouldn’t be doing this’. You’ve got to accept that you’re just going to play for 75 people in the clubs and just brush this White Lion temptation away because basically what I found out was the world didn’t need me to come back as White Lion. It was just some people whispering and I totally regret it! And then I obviously rekindled the 4 solo albums, started pushing and it became really clear. Now as I toured the world with just an acoustic guitar I started playing the White Lion songs in the Dylan, Tom Petty and the Springsteen versions and I could tell the stories about them. Suddenly there it made sense! But I wasn’t standing there with a guitar player who wasn’t really playing the songs in the proper way or the band playing the songs note for note. This brings us to 2022 where in the past years when I’ve been travelling and touring with my Band Of Brothers, which is my Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, the promoters have been saying “Oh man, can you play some White Lion and can you show us a video from the rehearsal room where you’re playing Broken Heart” and stuff like that. Every time I got an email like that I felt like smashing my computer! Well I put my solo albums out, and I might be biased because it’s me, but I think there’s some damn good songs on there that shows clearly where this artist is on the way. I spoke to Marcus and he and I did a tour in Spain where we introduced White Lion songs and getting closer to playing them note for note. I said “Do the homework and let me know if we can record these songs in this key”. Once we started doing the demos and I heard it back I said “This is what I need to do”. But maybe what some people don’t realise is at the same time last year, I also released my first album in Danish, my mother tongue. With Songs of White Lion and with my solo career and the Danish album, it’s very clear to me that they are 3 very separate things. As long as I do each individually… when I play Songs Of White Lion I’m not going to be playing any Mike Tramp solo songs. And when I play with Band Of Brothers or my Danish songs with a piano somewhere in a little club, obviously I’m not going to be playing any White Lion songs. So I have 3 wardrobes and a long as I pick the right wardrobe for the right song I will be okay!
I mentioned before about how this album is full of surprises. One big surprise was the new piano lead arrangement for the massive hit When The Children Cry. 35 years later this track continues to have huge significance especially because what we are seeing in terms of world events. Replacing the guitar with piano and with you singing in a lower register really helps to bring a poignancy to the song and a very deep emotional connection. Of all the tracks, this is probably the one that is the most different from the original. Did what’s happening in Ukraine influence the approach you took to reworking this song?
Well, I have played that song, the version you hear, for many many years. Since the original version of When The Children Cry is just Vito on the guitar, I thought it would be sort of tasteless in just going out and repeating note for note that guitar part. I find it a little bit amazing that in 1985, when Ronald Reagan was the president, and it was very clear what America was and what America represented, yet here I am sitting in my manager’s house, where I was living in his basement, writing this song. Mötley Crüe had just released Shout At The Devil and Bon Jovi were releasing their Slippery When Wet and I am here singing ‘no more presidents and all the wars will end’, explaining to the children that we have destroyed the world. A lot of people would be looking out the window saying ‘Hey, it looks pretty good outside!’ but having this kind of thing where it might look rosy red right now but there are places where it absolutely isn’t rosy red. And then of course today with this disaster that’s going on in the Ukraine and so many other places this song really, really hits home. When I’m drawn into talking about this song I think also that when this song became a hit in the 80s, when you had songs like Mötley Crüe’s Home Sweet Home and Poison’s Every Rose Has Its Thorn and Bon Jovi’s Wanted Dead Or Alive, I think that When The Children Cry became for a moment another 80s ballad where where people just liked it for the melody. Maybe the fans didn’t go that deep into the lyrics and what it really meant because maybe it was a little hard to interpret it when you were sleeping well at home and there were no bombs being dropped around your house. The fact that it comes alive today is simply down to the strength of the song. You mention the lower register – and this is the only time in our interview where I’m going to refer to sex. When I went in and sang this song the first time and going so heavy at it, it’s looking at myself crawling into bed with whoever in 1987. When I crawl into bed today I’m just a different person. I’m doing it for different reasons, and having the joy of singing When The Children Cry today, from the heart and not just from the vocal chords, is a true reward.
Let’s move onto Mike Tramp in a live setting. Throughout May and June you will be embarking upon a huge 22 day tour of the US with hardly a day off. How do you prepare for and survive such an extensive tour?
I was just rehearsing earlier and thinking about that. I’m probably one of the only ones in America besides true blues artists that tours like that. Most of the 80s band on a smaller level have given up because there aren’t that many shows or there are a lot of requirements. So my booking agent throws me up against a wall to see where I’d stick and that’s where I play. I’ve built a big following with people who come to these venues. I take care of myself but it’s going to be a tough ass tour. Thank God that I neither smoke, drink or do drugs and stuff like that. I try to take as much care of myself as possible. At the same time, even though it’s only 12 shows in the UK, it’s similarly intense. For those, it’s a power duo between myself and Marcus Nand. We’ve created a little backing loop of bass and drums so people in the clubs will get the full feeling of the album. We simply wouldn’t be able to go into those venues if we came with a band. There’s no money for it. I want to get out there and meet the people, and I think we’ve put something very interesting together.
Well let’s just pick up a little more on the UK dates. You have a very special and fiercely loyal fan base in the UK. For example, I even saw your show in Blackpool a couple of years ago when they gifted you a local football team shirt with your name on the back! What does it mean to be coming back to the UK?
I love playing in the UK. It’s probably one of the only places in the world where you can have an ongoing conversation with the audience throughout the whole live set! (Laughs!) I love it! And I love the hard-core of ‘we can take the piss out of each other’! Of course, as much as I am open to playing Wembley, the fact is that I will be playing the venue in Blackpool and the venue in London, and other places which are small clubs. I think there’s a friendship that I’ve built with the fans and it’s something incredible special, and I don’t know if KISS has that!
As our conversation draws to a close, we reflect on not just what an incredible album Songs Of White Lion really is but also on how as a concept it just makes sense. Importantly it’s a record that successfully addresses rather than perpetuates Mike’s frustrations with the music industry around his former band whilst simultaneously exorcising the demons of unfinished business. It’s an absolute gem!
To find out more, head over to https://m.facebook.com/MikeTrampOfficial and in the meantime enjoy the track Little Fighter below.