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Early Blues Interview
Bluesman Mike Francis
 

 Copyright 2014 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.

"If Woodie Guthrie and Robert Johnson were still around today they'd probably sound like this guy"
 - Martin Elliott, author, Rolling Stones Complete Recording Sessions

I caught up with circuit veteran Bluesman Mike Francis at The Waterside Arts Centre, Sale, Cheshire where he was supporting his friend Larry Miller on tour.

Alan:      Where do you originate from and what were your first musical memories?

Mike:    I'm originally from the Midlands, although I'm based further north now.  I grew up around the Midlands and my first professional playing in the 70s was overseas, I did some gigs in this country and then quickly started touring and working overseas, picking up stuff like soul tours in Europe.  I'm really from the Midlands but these days I base myself out of Liverpool.

Alan:      Did you come from a musical family?

Mike:    I suppose there was influence there from my grandfather.  I remember as a boy there being music in the house, influences and things, I remember the excitement of the new charts coming out and running down the street to listen to that.  In the days when we bought vinyl records.

 Copyright 2014 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.Alan:      Did you always want to become a musician and how did you get started in music?

Mike:    Yes, I think I collected guitar catalogues; I was always fascinated by guitars and I've been with guitars all my life.  That's where the interest started. I started playing when I was about 10 or 11, when I first attempted to play then I got proper assistance from a friend of mine and took it from there and that developed eventually into what I'm doing now.

Alan:      What kind of material were you playing in the early days?

Mike:    I suppose really it was whatever was put in front of us.  There were a lot of American influences, a lot of things that we heard through the radio, late night radio, listening to chart shows and then more traditional music, a lot of acoustic stuff, a lot of American protest stuff.  Acoustic music always fascinated me, acoustic music always has, probably more so in later times.  I guess like everybody else I got into the early Kinks, Hollies, those kind of bands but there was a yearning to sound like a lot of the black American soul singers. I was always very interested in that and  I liked to play those numbers as well.  I always enjoyed working with local people and playing instruments together and trying to pretend we were a supergroup, that was part of the fun.

Alan:      What first attracted you to the blues?

Mike:    The blues, I suppose it was early television influences.  I started watching stuff that had come from the States and obviously there was quite a connection with bands like the Stones and what they were doing, so I kind of put the two together and found it interesting  to go off on my own and play really early blues picks. I used to collect records that had that on them and I would spend hours  copying how they did their fingerpicking and their style and even in those days although I didn't play bottleneck until some years later, the bottleneck blues was always really an exciting sound.  I picked it up in later times and really do enjoy that, to me that's something very special.

Alan:      Who has influenced you most in your music writing and playing?

Mike:    It's difficult to say really.  There's probably a lot of early 70s influence there because that became most active in my playing so I suppose there would have been riffs and things that you heard on radio although you didn't always know who they were.  I remember going round the fairgrounds with my Dad and hearing incredibly loud distorted speakers which at times sounded really good but looking back on it must've been really awful.  I remember things like The Turtles, The Kinks and bands like that, probably very early Rock n'Roll things with Bill Haley; my mother had these records and I can remember listening to that as well.  Obviously Elvis has to come in there somewhere and that generation but once I got into more full-time playing, I took it on more I found that the soul boom was there and the black influence with that and I really enjoyed doing that.  There were some great days.  There were a great  learning pad for me with some really great artists.

Alan:      What guitars do you play and which is your favourite?

Mike:    As I do my own show now, I've gone back to what I was probably 10 or 20 years ago.  I'm playing a lot of 12 string in the live shows I'm doing now - I've just come back from Croatia, doing some shows in Europe,  a couple of dates now with Larry Miller and some on my own. At the moment I'm taking out two different string tunings on 12 string guitar. I think Blind Willie McTell had his 12 string and  I'm sort of combining a bit of bottleneck with a bit of open string as well. I'm using two 12 strings tonight so we'll have a look at what that sounds like; beautiful sounds from beautiful guitars,

Alan:      Are there any particular songs that you play that have any special meaning to you?

Mike:    Oh yes.  There's a whole load of things.  There's some songs that I play sometimes, haven't done them for a while but there are songs by people like Tony T.S. McPhee, from his acoustic phase, some of those types of song. At the moment I'm doing a couple of almost tribute things to past legends, I'm doing a song called 'Country Mile' by Rory Gallagher at the moment which I'm enjoying very much.  And also since the death of Bobby Womack, I've been playing 'Don't Trust Me' as well.  I haven't done that as a solo song yet but I will do.  I've also started to play songs that are 20, even 30 years old that I've written.  I'm doing a song tonight that I think is 25 years old, we recorded on what was a cassette!  I recorded a cassette album 25 years ago as Mike Francis. 

Alan:      That leads me to the 25 Colne Great British Rhythm & Blues Festivals, of which I think you've performed or been involved with 24 of them?

Mike:    Yes, I've had some connection with 24, whether it was involved with it on a sort of a sponsorship or taking part basis or just doing a little set down the road, I've been involved in them for all those years.  Oddly enough we sent a press release for this out just before the event (see below) and it was disconcerting that the press release didn't get used because somebody came along and said he'd done it for 50 years.  But if the festival has been going for 25 there isn't really any possibility ... that's the artistic licence of the blues!

Alan:      How do you think the Colne Festival has changed over the years?

Mike:    It's evolved.  It's naturally got bigger.  Bits of it I would argue have got better.  It's opened up a little bit.  It hasn't become a rock event as such but it's opened the barriers a little bit but that can be quite healthy to bring in new blood, as long as they keep the traditional touring acts and bringing the old legends in from the States. They keep booking me which is obviously very important and they have an acoustic flavour, they use the Acoustic Stage well and I hope that carries on.

 Copyright 2014 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.Alan:      Yes, the Acoustic Stage is always packed out.  What do you remember about the first Colne festival?

Mike:    Oh, very clear. I remember it like it was yesterday.  I've still got the first programme somewhere. One of the main stages in those days was Jim's Cafe in the original festival and I was there.  I've made a point of being in the cafe every year except the year I didn't make it, either to play or to see people.  It was a very important part of it to me. I think there was Dr Feelgood and Paul Jones with the Blues Band that headlined.  I managed to see those acts and I think the hall wasn't laid out quite the same as it is now.  The event has got bigger and longer now.

Alan:      You've been in the blues music business for 38 years, has it changed much over the years?

Mike:    Quite a lot.  We've got all sorts of new sorts of things happening now.  The new publications, new methods of controlling the way music is distributed and listened to, most of which I find very interesting.  I don't necessarily take part in all of it, but I do find it interesting.  I've tried to move with the times but performance-wise I stick to a very traditional way of doing things.  I'd have to say that I think the genre has to get mainstream to survive unless we've got new blood coming in it's going to become a baby-boom situation with just a lot of postwar people who remember it coming up. New blood is coming in, there are wonderful new performers that are under 18, there are a lot of people who are being passed down from father to son which is nice to see and it's getting some coverage again on the TV, with the BBC 4 documentaries, some of the traditional stuff.  A lot of people like to know where the music they're listening to now, such as at the Britpops, comes from.  I think that's very important.

Alan:      Over the time you've been in the business you must have had some memorable moments.

Mike:    There's been quite a few of those.  One that immediately springs to mind is when I was touring Germany with the band in the 70s doing these soul tours. We were in the truck and we had these itineraries from the agent, we were bobbing along and when we got to the venue it all seemed very quiet and there were some ladies in there with chairs having a Women's Meeting in the main hall.  We looked at the itinerary and we'd got the sheets the wrong way round and we had half an hour left to get to virtually the other side of Germany and play the proper show.  In more recent times there's been a few nice surprises.  I was lucky enough to get nominated last year for the European Blues Awards because of some gigs that I did abroad and in Britain.

Alan:      You were nominated alongside Seasick Steve and Matt Anderson.

Mike:    Yes, and ironically I do sometimes do shows with Matt Anderson.  We are friends and I've been following him and been involved with that side for some years.  I managed to organise it with the people who had done the event that I could actually present his award.  That was lovely to be able to see Matt again.  These little things happen and it was nice to get recognition that far down the line.  Hopefully long may it last!


Bluesman Mike Francis with Matt Anderson

Alan:      Do you frequently tour Europe?

Mike:    I wouldn't say it was frequently, I've been over with the Duo and I've done my solo stuff over there more recently, I did some low key shows in Croatia a few weeks ago.

Alan:      How do the European shows compare with the British shows?

Mike:    It's quite different.  I actually experimented by doing a song in a different language recently, which was quite amusing as it was a language I don't speak.  It went down very well, just for that reason probably.  I think they are more, being general, overall they are more willing to buy products on the day, the whole merchandising thing, if I can pack a case and put some CDs in, I'm probably going to sell them.  I've found that we get more orders through from Europe and the States.  I've got a new radio session coming out that I'm quite excited about, which has got some good new material in it.  I don't record a lot these days.

The material side of it, well basically, I wrote most of what became the Sisters in Grease album when I was in Europe, it's a festival partnership that we do as a duo. We released an album and most of that I managed to pen in about a week and find it a great clear-thinking experience.  I feel that I'm writing from the heart but I'm trying to write from natural influence that comes quite often from the 30s and 40s.  So really, it's new material but it's almost been beamed in from somewhere that sort of becomes the songs.  They have that traditional feel, that roots basis to them, and they've not been copied necessarily from anything that I've directly remembered or done, they are fresh influences.  The song that I'm talking about with the recording is actually called Imelda May and I'll be playing it tonight. Some time ago, obviously being involved with the festivals, we came across Imelda May.  It just happened to be some lyrics that came into the song, so we decided to do it.  But the nightmare we had trying to make the video was beyond belief. There was a mix up with the management and we tried to do it all legitimately with passes and do the filming for a 30 second spot in the video.  It ended up taking up part of my life that I'll never get back.  And still it wasn't made but never mind we are going to release the track anyway and that'll come out on a radio session in the next couple of weeks and we're looking forward to that. 

Alan:      What are your future plans and projects?

Mike:    I intend to become more active next year, both in the UK and further afield, as a solo entertainer, as Bluesman Mike Francis.  On Wikipedia, as a performer, as a guitar player for many years I was Mike Francis but the problem came when a very famous Italian singer called Mike Francis passed on a couple of years ago and it didn't half do some damage to the Google ratings.  Going back to the point about technology and links to the web, that's what really matters now.  So that caused a lot of problems.  So I then ended up changing to Bluesman Mike Francis and it kind of stuck.  In Croatia, they billed me as 'The Bluesman' with, in brackets underneath, 'Mike Francis'.  So it works somehow.  But that's what I'll now be known as for my remaining years, however long they might be. 

Alan:      It can be difficult,  like my name, I often get mixed up with Alan White, the Yes drummer!

Mike:    Yeah, it happens and that must be a big one with what you do. So that's where we are, to get the session out and do some stuff next year.  I enjoy doing the festivals they are all exciting, especially the indoor ones, these new Weekenders, trips away, I get quite interested in those, I get requests occasionally to do them.  Obviously I have other interests that I'm involved in, I co-promote the Manchester Blues & Roots Festival that'll be running again in the bi-anneal next year  2015.  We are going to push that quite hard this year, and this year it will go in with part of a drama festival which I'm interested in as well.

Alan:      Thank you Mike.

 Copyright 2014 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

Bluesman Mike Francis  Copyright 2013 Mike Francis.
Bluesman Mike Francis Copyright 2013 Mike Francis.
All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.

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