INTERVIEW BY CATH AUBERGINE
From Longsight To The Levee
"...It’s approaching midnight in the Witchwood and Mike West has just played over two hours of what he likes to call New Orleans levee-billy music. I’m trying to work out when I last saw him and realise it was 1991 when The Man From Delmonte went out on a high, as some London venue neither of us can recall the name of took exception to the coachload of Mancunians invading the stage sometime around the fourth encore and pulled the trip-switch. Days when his trademark lopsided hair was a fixture at any gig worth going to in town....."
So Mike, where have you been all these years?
“I left in 93, sold my little house on Mackenzie Street in Longsight, got some money in my pocket and decided to go to America really as a tourist. I didn’t really know anyone there but I had this romantic idea that I’d go to Texas and learn to play country music. An ill-founded idea, as I showed up there and couldn’t find any country music to save my life! It was just all this rock’n’roll college band, cover band stuff. Maybe I hit it on a bad night… so I just started taking Greyhound buses around, went to Memphis, then Nashville…”
Unfortunately he hit Nashville in the middle of a property boom, with no cheap rooms for a travelling musician to rent, so he kept on moving.
“I was running out of money so I took a bus to New Orleans, a city I had no attachment to. I think I’d seen the movie ‘Angel Heart’ but I wasn’t even a Tom Waits fan or anything. And it had all these bars with bands on – rock musicians, folk musicians, jazz musicians, all kinds of weird musicians. It’s not a big city, about the size of Manchester, and kind of linked because it’s where they used to export cotton. I hung around there and fell in love with a lady whose name was Myshkin, she was a musician, and we toured around together for many years”. Although separated from Myshkin now and married to musical partner Katie, Mike’s still doing just that. “America’s really big so you can survive in a marginal way. To make a living making music in the UK you have to be famous, but America’s so large and diverse. There’s all these small clubs and you can build a reputation and sell records. I sell more records now than I ever did in Man From Delmonte, just from touring. I love to play, I always did love to play, but in that pop group thing you’d have nine gigs and then a month off. Suddenly I could play 300 nights a year!”
Well it certainly puts to shame bands who consider a 20 date tour a year’s work. So who’s coming to all these gigs?
“It’s very regional, it varies. In the MidWest we might have a strong following, but in Florida it’s just bar gigs – every area has its own character. We play a lot of small clubs and then occasionally we get to play festivals and pretend we’re bigger stars that what we are! But essentially it’s a kind of subculture – a few hundred people here or 15 in some small country town, making our living out of the generosity of strangers. We don’t pay a record company, we don’t pay an agent, it’s like an old-fashioned troubadour kind of thing.”
And then there’s the songs. Many Mancunians of a certain age (or was it just me?) spent hours poring over the complex relationships in Delmonte tunes, where the same people would turn up in two or three songs. Whereas now it’s oil refineries and alligators in the mall and rednecks chasing a daughter’s wayward boyfriend, but it still sounds like a fascinating life…
“In the Man From Delmonte I was young, and songs tend to be more about you and your girlfriends, very autobiographical. These days it’s people I know and stories they’ve told me. I use the first person but it’s mostly other peoples’ lives.”
With roots now across three continents, I wonder if he feels Australian, Mancunian or American.
“I’m a conglomerate of all of it. I was an immigrant here, Manchester was kind enough to make me feel more at home than I’d felt anywhere else. Yet I’d lived in England from the age of seven, but was always kind of this Australian guy living in England. In Manchester people let me be a part of things – New Orleans is even more like that. It’s such a crazy mix of people. I was working next to someone who’d lived in New Orleans all their life, and one day, after about two months, they went ‘You’re not from round here, are you?’ – it had taken them that long to get to that question because it’s so low on their priorities. They just think you’re from some weird suburb, maybe some Irish Italian thing they don’t understand; there’s so many accents you just never get that ‘So where are you from then?’ which I ran into all the time here. I was thinking ‘I’ve lived here 25 years, when do I get to be English?’ This is the first time I’ve been back here in quite a long time.”
Manchester’s changed a lot in that time too…
“Yeah, I was completely lost! Three years ago was the first time I’d been back since the bomb and the downtown area was totally transformed, done up in an intense way, there were all these cafes and yuppies and stuff, it was really alien to me. Then I went back to my old house in Longsight and it was poorer than it had ever been, but I’ve just been back down there now and it’s all part of this ‘urban regeneration’ thing. In a way it was nice to see because it looked pretty harsh last time. It wasn’t that glamorous when I lived there but it had got worse, and now it’s kind of fancified up again.”
So what about the music scene here, do you still keep in touch?
“Not really. I was talking to Larry from James today and it was good to run into him again, but I don’t even know what goes on in American popular music. There are contemporary bands I like but you’ll never hear them on the radio, yet show up to a gig and there might be 150 people there. I love that, it’s a proper musical alternative and Manchester used to have that, maybe it does still. I used to go out and see bands three nights a week, the bottom line is I love live music, I love it more than listening to records, I just love to watch people play.”
I’ll drink to that. Except the bar shut a long time ago. The banjo’s back in its case and Katie’s home made bass is packed away, and the world’s only Mancunian Australian New Orleans Cajun country hillbilly folk singer has another town to get to. The chances are he’ll be playing somewhere tonight.
Mike’s ten albums are available via his website at www.mikewest.net - along with all the recipes for cooking squirrels you will ever need.
words: Cath Aubergine Aug2004
pictures: (c) Mick Vovers / Mike West Website
(c)(p) aug04 - musicdash / manchestermusic.co.uk 2004