Interview by Mark Lacey
Mike Tramp talks about his latest return to White Lion music and wrestling with the devils and angels on his shoulders.
By the time White Lion toured the UK’s largest arenas with Mötley Crüe and Skid Row in November 1989, they had already become an international success following the MTV chart favourite ‘When The Children Cry’ and yet within two years the band would part company. Despite many calls from fans, White Lion’s creative duo, Mike Tramp and Vito Bratta would never write together again after that 1991 split. During the past 30 years Mike Tramp has continued to re-invent himself and achieve further success, starting with his band Freak of Nature, and latterly as a solo performer, creating an extensive catalogue in the process. And yet the calling to re-visit his past seems like an eternal pull.
MGM: You’re playing your first international shows in almost 4 years, and out on the road with the ‘Rock Meets Classic’ guys. That’s an interesting concept, bringing together some of rock music’s brightest lights alongside an orchestra, and playing arenas across Germany,
Mike: I’m out here with “other legends”. We’ve got Dee Snider, who I’ve known since 1983 when I came to America. We got a great vocalist, Joey Tempest, out of Stockholm, Sweden, a fellow Viking. And we’ve got Bernie and Mick from Uriah Heap. That’s true musical history. I grew up with my older brother who was a Uriah Heap and classic rock fan back then. And then we got a new guy on the scene, Ronnie Romero, who came to fame when he came out with Richard Blackmore’s Rainbow. And then we got Scottish singer Maggie Reilly, which also brings a lot of musical history. It’s like an old knitting club when we sit and talk about stuff. When people refer to the Motley Crue, White Lion, Skid Row shows at Wembley and Birmingham NEC in 1989, it’s the total opposite. This is actually when people sit around and don’t bullshit each other anymore. And it’s a wonderful place to be.
I had never met Mick Box and Bernie before. But I tell you, from the second they stepped into the hotel bar, it was like a family member. I’ve never met two nicer people than them. I’m going to miss them tremendously. Not seeing them at the breakfast table. We’re becoming a little bit more sentimental and emotional as we grow older, but we also really cherish real people.
MGM: You’ve done four out of the ten dates so far with this tour. How have they been going?
Mike: These are sold out arena shows and even from Mike Tramp, who used to run from one side of the arena stage to the other, which I have to admit was a long time ago, it’s a new place to step into. I can go out on a big stage, but there are some mental issues that I’m fighting; should I be there? Do I want to be there? Obviously, I am there. I said yes. But it’s not so much that I’m a bull at a gate, to really be there and love that. Sometimes when I sit in my hotel room, I come to the conclusion that in 1991 I closed down White Lion and it had to do with a lot of things, but it also had to do with a certain character I was representing in the White Lion world. That character would stay with the shutdown of White Lion and new character would show up for the Freak of Nature years. And when those years ended and I started my first solo album Capricorn in 97-98, Mike Tramp would step into the picture. And that is the Mike Tramp that has been there ever since, and who’s actually much more comfortable playing smaller places, playing bars with an acoustic guitar or even a little band. Something that I feel isn’t too far away from how I grew up and who I am. Yes, I did have the rock and roll dream, the big stage, etc, once I got into the game. But once you’re out of that game, you’re drawn back to where you feel you belong. I’m not going to run away from wanting more success with my albums. But that big rock and roll world with the mirrored sunglasses is a position I can’t fill anymore.
MGM: You had huge success with White Lion 1983-91 and then you’ve revisited it many times over the years. That’s included the version of White Lion you toured with from 2004-08; your album ‘Return of the Pride’; and obviously now you’re back with this new album, ‘Songs of White Lion’. How you do you reflect on White Lion? Is it a safe place for you to return to, or is it like an anchor that holds you back?
Mike: That’s a challenging question. The thing is, it’s not a safe place. It’s not like I’m coming crawling back to mum and she cooks up the soup and you’re comfy and she pays your bills. In many ways it’s more like the anchor, not that holds you back, but pulls you down. And it’s also a curse that appears because, and I have to be honest when I’m confronted with this, I have revisited them. And the two times I have revisited them, I have regretted both times because it didn’t feel right. But of course, I allowed myself to go there. It’s ironic that here I am just a few days after the album was released, and I am talking this way. I’m not sitting here with bottles of champagne and throwing a party because it is very emotional. On a daily basis from the second I wake up until I walk on stage, walk off stage, come back to the hotel room and sit alone …. I’m constantly faced with the devil and the angel on each shoulder, telling me yes, telling me no; you should be doing this, you should not be doing this. And there’s myself in the middle, battling this, because there are moments where I really feel good and there’s also moments where I feel extremely sad, and pulled into a darkness I don’t want to be in, and having to fight myself out of that. I’m very proud of being able to do this album. When people go to a track of Mike Tramp ‘Songs of White Lion’ they will possibly pick those tracks instead of a track from 37 years ago, which sounds nothing like me and where maybe sonically White Lion sounds like outer space.
Mike: Yeah, it’s the family of trusted brothers that understand where I come from and understand what we’re not going to do. This is not picking up four young guys in spandex and then thinking we’re going to conquer the world, because we’re not. I’m limiting this to a very specific thing. Right now, I’m doing the ‘Rock meets Classic’ tour where I’m part of some big shows. I’m going to be doing a suicidal tour in the US in the month of May, playing 22 shows in the month ….. and it’s basically going to kill me. If I survive that tour, we will continue over the summer to play some European summer festivals, and then onto the UK from August 17th.
MGM: During COVID no one could go anywhere, but I think 2019 was the last time you played the US and UK You did a huge amount of shows that year, but you’ve not really done many outside of Denmark since then …maybe just one in Sweden last year. It must be quite exciting for you to be able to get out there and spread your wings again?
Mike: I have built up an enormous amount of friends / supporters / fans with my solo work. There are people that feel that I’m a part of their life in one way or another; they’ve grown with my music and my music has grown with them; especially the solo albums, because each albums tells a story, and that is very rewarding. It’s almost more rewarding than going out like I did last night in front of 8000 people in Munich. David Lee Roth says; “When you bring that many people together, the IQ drops to nine years old”. But when you look at 85 people together in a pub, you’ve got that personal connection. And this is the battle I’m fighting right now. I’m out now on the big tour bus, people doing everything for me and it’s tough to really celebrate, because it feels unreal somehow.
MGM: One thing the fans will recognise in your new album, is that the songs are very faithful to the original recordings, but they’ve been enhanced by a fresh modern production, and some of the tempos have been adjusted to bring out that rich emotion in your voice. Your unique vocal persona has improved with age, and that emotion has become your hallmark.
Mike: Looking right back; I see myself being very young and eager and pushing hard, and sometimes forgetting the emotions that I had written into the lyrics, and not being able to perform it with the confidence that it’s not just words. With time I found a much better connection to the songs. I’ve played a lot of the White Lion, Vito Bratta and Mike Tramp compositions, over the last 10-12 years acoustically around the world and I’m able to do the true storytelling in the songs with the emotion of where I feel my voice is strongest. I had a period where I was able to be up there in a stratosphere. I don’t know who gave me that energy, but very quickly into that White Lion period, I knew that it would be a battle to sing like that for the next 25-30 years.
It’s almost like in ‘87 I was still going through my puberty and I wasn’t all the way out of my cocoon. I hadn’t become the butterfly I feel I am today. The ‘Mane Attraction’ album was the first time I started feeling I was singing a bit different. It became very obvious when I did ‘Freak of Nature’ because I shifted completely and it felt much more comfortable. And then obviously when I did the ‘Capricorn’ solo album, I was singing the songs like I would present to Vito. Like when I would bring songs to the table, and Vito would interpret my ideas, and start adding the guitar playing to it, and then it finally would become White Lion. But the birth of any Mike Tramp song exists on my thirteen solo albums. So that’s the approach I took to the ‘Songs of White Lion’ album. There is no way in hell that I could sing them in the original key. I’m not embarrassed about that. I also cannot run like I used to. There’s a lot of things I can’t do. I think the word revisiting is probably better this time. I am coming back and I’m opening the book to these songs and I’m interpreting and performing my own songs 37 years later with a heartbreak; with children in my life; with bankruptcy; with pain and anger; and everything is now expressed in these songs. And last but not least, I own and control the songs. When I recorded the ‘Pride’ album, I stood in front of the microphone and looked at a lyric sheet and sang off that. Now, I don’t do that. The songs are in my spine. I just sing, and each take I do will be different.
MGM: Did you kind of feel any sense of nostalgia when you were revisiting these songs?
Mike: Well, yeah, of course. There were moments where I really felt happy because I felt I connected with the song and really just understood what it’s all about. A lot of my heroes, I felt, got it right on their first album. I didn’t always feel that I got it right. And so maybe I was hoping that one day I would get to do that under the right conditions. Those conditions being that I’m doing it for me first, and I’m not in the studio with people guiding me and controlling me. I’m doing this at home. I’m back home on my farm. I’ve been outside working or enjoying myself all day. I’ll have a cup of tea, it’s getting dark. I go into the studio, and start singing.
MGM: You’re going to finish this run of dates in a couple of days and then you’ve got a week break before you head off to the US. What will fans expect to see at those shows? Are you going to focus on the ‘Songs of White Lion’ album exclusively or is there room for you to play any solo material?
Mike: Now, the poster says ‘Songs of White Lion’. There’s no room for anything else whatsoever. Not even room for a pair of extra socks. There’s a little bit of thought behind the whole thing, that the album cover is almost a concert poster, that the question will not be asked anymore. You walk by the club or the theatre and there you see the album cover or the concert poster says, Mike Tramp ‘Songs of White Lion’. You’re not going to ask yourself, what is he singing? What’s he playing tonight? But in the same way that I have listened to someone call out “Play ‘Lady of the Valley’!” for the last 37 years. I’m sure there’s going to be someone calling out for a solo track because that’s just the way this world we live in is. Then I just say thank you very much for owning that album. It’s an honour.
The ‘Songs of White Lion’, performed by Mike Tramp, is a very clear statement of what that is. It’s a show designed basically for festivals and bringing the songs back to a large rock crowd that remember some of them. Whether we’re able to do smaller shows and stuff like that, time will tell. Then there’s Mike Tramp, the solo albums with his band, Band of Brothers. And then there’s Mike Tramp, and the acoustic guitar that can put him into any given place in the world. I have a feeling that that is probably how I’m going to end my career. It’s the one that is most realistic.
Mike: It’s a silly comparison, but it’s like the spice rack in the kitchen. You reach out for a certain spice and that’s what you’re exactly going to get. Sometimes you reach for salt and pepper, and there are so many choices of it, but if you reach out for cardamom or cinnamon, it is such a specific spice that you wouldn’t reach for it if you didn’t want it. So, if you’re going to see Mike Tramp at the Black Heart in London, you’re reaching out for cardamom, that is what you’re going to get. Don’t come there and expect lights and thunder and a drum riser that rises up in the air, and pyro. This is almost like you’re visiting Mike Tramp at home.
MGM: You’re one of a handful of musicians that’s come out of Copenhagen, Denmark and achieved international success. If you were to go back 45 years to when you were in Mabel, could you have imagined that your career would take the trajectory that it’s taken? And what do you look back on with the fondest memories?
Mike: I never had a dream of ending up where I ended up, both with the success, and what comes after not having the success. The only thing that I know 100% for sure is that very early on, I made a lifetime commitment. I knew that there would be no way to fulfil this without 100% committing. And it’s not necessarily that I’m proud of saying this, but everything in my life has been sacrificed for what I am. My three children, my two marriages, my mum, my brothers, my own happiness, because I paid a price so dear. But I was already so deep into it when these things came along that I didn’t feel like I had a family. And then I decided to become a rock and roll warrior, soldier, freedom fighter. I was already that for almost 20 years because before that “family life”, whatever you want to call it, shows up. I wasn’t able at that time to say, now I’m going to have to make it work together, because it doesn’t work together. There are a few successful stories and a blessing. Yesterday, Dee Snider came down the hallway and I think he had his 47th anniversary with his wife. And I said to Dee, “how the fuck is this possible?” And he looked at me and said, “she’s a saint”. Once in a while, somebody gets lucky.
Mike Tramp will be touring his ‘Songs of White Lion’ show across the US in May/June, and the UK in August/September. For more information and tickets:
August 17th: Eleven, Stoke
August 18th: Yardbirds, Grimsby
August 19th: Corporation, Sheffield
August 20th: The Patriot Inn, Newport
August 21st: Patriot, Crumlin
August 22nd: Nightrain, Bradford
August 23rd: Bannerman’s, Edinburgh
August 24th: Cluny, Newcastle
August 30th: The Waterloo Music Bar, Blackpool
August 31st: Wolverhampton, KK’s Steel Mill, Wolverhampton
September 1st: The Camden Assembly, London