Mike Roe is one of those guys who we don’t really need to introduce. You know him, you know his band The 77’s, and surely those who enjoy his music know about The Lost Dogs too. Another great project that he is involved in is Kerosene Halo with Derri Daugherty from The Choir. Their first release was spectacular – so make sure you scoop that up if you haven’t already. There will be new music from Kerosene Halo in the future, so stay tuned and plugged in. Mike has been actively involved in the music scene for probably just over 30 years now. His output has been significant – not to mention he is highly regarded as a very accomplished guitar player by both fans and peers alike. This interview was a great opportunity for us here at Down the Line to catch up with Mike and talk about a few things… but most of all to ask some questions regarding the much anticipated re-release of The 77’s highly regarded Sticks and Stones album.
For me, Sticks was my introduction to The 77’s. I remember buying it off the shelf at a local bookstore based completely on the cover artwork and the name of the band. Seriously, that was my discerning criteria to purchase albums at that time. Obviously, it panned out pretty good because Sticks made me a permanent fan of the Sevens. It introduced me to Aaron Smith who became one of my favorite drummers, as well as granting me access to a band that has progressed through the years and left their mark on so many people. The 77’s are amazing. Enjoy the lengthy interview below as Mr. Roe dishes on some history, the upcoming tour and the (just days away) release of the re-issue of Sticks and Stones.
What made Sticks and Stones the go to album for a reissue?
We’ve already been reissuing the back catalog gradually through iTunes and other digital outlets. Our fans have been gravitating towards digital more and more recently. It didn’t happen all at once but this seems to be the direction it’s been heading. For years we’ve been frustrated by having most of our albums out of print, but the difficult part is that it costs a thousand dollars or more just to press 1000 copies. In the old days you could move those pretty quickly, but these days with the music business being what it is, that could take 2 to 3 years or more to sell. So the investment becomes long-term and that’s kinda tough when you need cash right away. It makes it hard to get all of the music out there and keep it out there. So we decided to start doing a digital campaign with the reissues, and once we started doing that online, it has become easier and more cost effective to release hard copies in more limited runs.
I like the way this has all been going. It reminds me of when CDs first came out and everyone started digging deep into their vaults and finding all this unreleased stuff. It feels like we’re in a similar revolution 25 years later. So for people like us who are doing it off the radar with a small fan base, this is the way to go. It has also been a lot of fun because doing the reissues gives us themes for tours. Usually if you just go out on tour and you don’t have a theme, people aren’t as excited as they would be if you were touring around something. The fans really enjoy some sort of concept, so this gives us that as well.
So with Sticks getting the reissue treatment, does that mean re-mastered songs, new artwork, new tracks — the whole ball of wax?
Yep! Sticks wasn’t mastered well originally and we really wanted the opportunity to upgrade it sonically. Then we thought we should start digging around and see if there might be some things from around that time that never came out. Sometimes when you look for unreleased material you don’t come up with much, but in this case we found a lot of really good stuff. We have studio demos, live cuts, etc. I’m sure the fans of Sticks and Stones will really enjoy all the bonus material. There will probably also be additional ‘download only’ tracks that we offer.
So this will be released digitally and on hardcopy?
Yeah, it will be released on both. As far as the tour goes, this is kind of a reunion of the ‘It’s For You’ tour that I did with David Leonhardt 15 years ago. We haven’t gone out as a duo in a long time. It will be fun. We’ll be playing a lot of the songs from the Sticks era as well as other fan favorites.
That’s great! I was just trying to remember the last time you and David played together…
The last time we played together was four years ago during the Holy Ghost Building tour.
Ah, that’s right, I saw you guys on opening night of that tour.
The first half of that tour was horrible. I brought a guitar out on the road that I hadn’t been using for many years, and that guitar just would not stay in tune. It was really frustrating, so I called Derri and he let me borrow his Stratocaster, and once I got that it was fine. That first show that we played was in Marietta with Green Bracelet was pretty good. It all seemed to go downhill from there until I got Derri’s guitar. I remember we played “Riders on the Storm” that night. It was a pretty good show.
Are you guys going to play Sticks in its entirety on the tour?
We’re going to try to do as much of Sticks and Stones as we can, but as just a duo I doubt we could pull off songs like ‘The Loop’. It may not sound exactly like it did on the record but we’re talking about different ways that we can present the tunes. It will be fun to go through as much of it as we can and maybe also pull out songs from around the era a few years afterward when David joined the group.
So is the reissue coming out when you start the tour?
Yes. We will have it with us on the first gig and every gig thereafter.
So where will this tour play?
We’ll be going through the Midwest, South and East Coast. There has been a lot of interest on the West Coast too so we might do that later in the year. We’re going to play Cornerstone and I think we’re going to have a couple of friends join us onstage ‘cuz by that time there will also be a re-release of Echos ‘o Faith. That means a lot of the long lost fan favorite stuff is coming out again this year. With Sticks there will be expanded artwork, a bunch of unreleased photographs and probably about three discs worth of songs altogether.
With Sticks and Stones apparently there were two different versions that were originally released?
There was the Broken Records version, and there was the Sparks Records version, which was an import that was released in the Netherlands, Europe and in England. The difference was that the import had some songs that were mastered a little better, and they also used a different mix of the song ‘You Walked into the Room’ which we had given to them. They were a little worried about using songs from the Island album (which was the third album called 77’s), so we let them use studio tracks from More Miserable Than You’ll Ever Be which was released through Randy Layton and Alternative Records. So we’re going to put the alternate mix of ‘You Walked into the Room’ on this reissue of Sticks and Stones. That way the fans that have always wondered about it will be able to finally hear the original mix.
I bet that Sparks Records version is hard to find?
It pops up every once in awhile but very rarely. I made sure to get my copy back in the day.
Sticks and Stones was originally a compilation of demos. Did you go back and change the arrangements on any of the songs, or is everything in the original form as it was originally released?
No, we didn’t change anything. The original disc will still be the original disc, just sonically improved. I wanted the songs to be in the same order and I wanted it to be the same album. The bonus discs will have the alternate track that we just talked about, as well as a bunch of Mark Tootle songs that never saw the light of day. I’m excited about that because Mark was such an amazing writer. We performed these tunes on stage and recorded demos of them but they were never released. One of the songs I had not even thought about in over 30 years.
I also found a stellar live recording of ‘Nowhere Else’, which was really exciting. Rediscovering all these lost recordings has been interesting. I got a bunch of tapes from Jan Eric out of his personal collection, plus our old sound man Shalom Aberle submitted a bunch of tapes, and then stuff just started coming from everywhere. It’s amazing hearing all these tracks so many years later. Even some of the songs that weren’t recorded well have more of a magical feel to them than some of the high fidelity stuff. There’s this one version of ‘You Don’t Scare Me’ that just takes my face off, but the recording was so bad and there was so much feedback, but I just played this ripping lead and thought “Wow, was that really me?”
I know for me as a fan, I really enjoy the low fidelity stuff, the live tracks, and the bootlegs. Even though they’re not always as crisp and clear, I think the heart of the music really comes through. I think a lot of the fans really like that kind of stuff.
Yeah, for me it is the same way, but we have to be careful. There are so many bonus discs out there where the extra tracks make you feel horrible and you never want to listen a second time. For me the phrase I always use is, is it imminently playable? In other words, can it be listened to time and time again and still deliver that magical feeling? It’s like when U2 recorded the Joshua Tree album, I remember Bono saying that they recorded two albums worth of material and at the time he wasn’t quite sure which one they were going to use. I’m glad they went with the one they did because it was right for the times. Then as singles from the album started coming out, I found myself returning to those B side tracks like Spanish Eyes time and time again because they didn’t get overplayed. That’s the kind of stuff that the hardcore fans really like. Those tracks help to build the mythology and keep a band going. But again, it has to come off a certain way, otherwise it’s just garbage. I don’t like people going through my garbage (laughter)
So some of the tracks on the bonus disc don’t just come from the Sticks and Stones time, so what time period do the tracks cover?
Some of the songs on the bonus disc predate Sticks and Stones by as many as five years. Then we have some tracks that are live and some that were cut two years after Sticks, so the bonus disc spans a wide amount of time. In spite of the wide variety of songs spread over so many years, everything is still fairly cohesive.
Since all the songs are from that era, that means Jan, Mark and Aaron will be on all these tracks?
Yes, that was the rule. It had to have the four original members, or have Mark Proctor, who was the original drummer. I wanted it to be the original version of the band and not start getting into the next version of the 77’s because then the scene changed and it became a different group with a different sound. Only picking out tracks with the original members also helped us to narrow down what songs would go on the bonus discs. We had so many other recordings that we found too, so that means there’s more fun stuff coming soon for the fans.
That’s cool! This will definitely be a slice of history, a definite moment in time.
Yes it will. I also tried to get as many songs from Sticks on the live tracks. I think fans of Sticks are really going to enjoy those. The song ‘This Is the Way Love Is’ will kind of be the theme as there are three different versions of that tune. The original demo of the track where Mark Tootle is trying to sing like me is also on there. He wrote the song for me and then tried to mimic me singing, and I can’t wait for people to hear that because that is what inspired me to sing it the way I do. Mark is one of my favorite musical people. He is an amazing player, writer, and singer and I’m really grateful that I got to work with him.
Sticks and Stones was my introduction to the 77’s. Being that it was a compilation of demos, does it ever surprise you that so many people cite that as being their favorite 77’s record?
No, it doesn’t surprise me, and here’s why: those Sticks tracks were our best effort to try to get a record deal at the time. The idea that these were all just kind of throwaway demos was somewhat of a contrived myth that we spun for the sake of the fans so that when they heard the stuff, they would hopefully feel like it was way better than we were making it out to be, which of course it was. I was working under the radar at that time and was in the stages of trying to launch a new version of The 77s that I’d formed with David Leonhardt and Mark Harmon. It was somewhat of a clandestine operation. Sean Doty from Veil of Ashes had gone to Joey Taylor from Broken Records and asked that he help us out. Sean told Joey that we were getting this new group together and we had all these recordings sitting in the can waiting to be released. So Joey approached me and offered me this cherry deal at the time. It was financially good for us and we were also able to maintain ownership and rights of our songs. That was an offer that I couldn’t refuse.
We didn’t think it would be as successful as it was at the time, but I’m really grateful that it was because it helped to kick the band into the next phase for another 10 years of work. So Sticks really became our most popular release if you don’t include albums like Ping Pong Over the Abyss, which was a lot of folks’ baptism into our band. I think All Fall Down also had a similar impact, but the Island record not as much. I think part of the problem with the Island record was that it was on a secular label. The distribution was very limited and it was hard for people to get a copy. It wasn’t until 1995 when it came out on CD in the 1 2 3 box set that it found a larger audience.
That shines a light on the evolution of the album. Sticks and Stones is really the ‘go to’ album for me when it comes to the Seventy Sevens.
Yeah, we were trying really hard to get known by the music biz suits in Hollywood. We played a lot of showcases for them down there. It was a very heady time but it was also a very scary time because we knew those guys in suits had heard it all. We were being pushed on the radio — Rodney Bingenheimer from KROQ loved us, and Paul Atkinson who used to be in The Zombies (and was the A&R guy for RCA at the time) really liked the whole retro aspect of what we were doing. Paul was actually the one who came closest to signing us. Ultimately, though, everyone said the same thing, which was they just didn’t hear “that one song”, i.e., a hit single. Part of the reason that the song MT exists is because I went to Bongo Bob Smith who had his hand in all of the music business back then and I said, “You’ve got to write us a hit song”. We needed ‘that one song’. He had this song called ‘More Than’ (MT); he had most of the melody and chords, and I fashioned the lyrics around what he already had and I helped to shape the rest of the melody. I thought we had a good collaboration and came up with a good tune. It just did not work, for whatever reason; it just didn’t turn out to be that hit song. We were poised and we were ready but no one bit. This was also after our stint with Island Records, which was a big blow for us as well. After these two big blows you become discouraged, and when you get discouraged you start behaving in ways that aren’t right and that led to personal problems within the band. Eventually the whole thing ended in tears. That’s part of the bittersweet aspect of it all.
Now that I’m older and wiser and understand life a little better, I realize that we were probably looking at this whole thing wrong. We did the best that we could, but I don’t think that’s spiritually what was going on at the time. What had actually been going on all along was that these songs were having a certain type of spiritual impact upon people, changing their lives, drawing them closer to God and helping them to work out conflicts that they had or helping to comfort them through hard times.
What was it like for you revisiting this album?
I think overall there was a sadness attached to that record because we never scored the album deal we were after. It was shortly after that, that the band just disintegrated amidst personal problems and conflict with the record company and each other. It was just a sad, fall-apart situation that made all of us fairly unhappy for a long time. So there is somewhat of a bittersweet feeling associated with it. However, over time the bitter part has mostly faded away because it was all such a long time ago. All those relationships have been repaired since then and what came out of the whole thing was a whole new generation of 77s fans. It made a lot of people happy. I’m fortunate to be associated with an album like this. It shows that a lot of good stuff can happen in spite of conflict. I guess it’s sort of a metaphor for how life works a lot of the time. If you can somehow find a way to work with your brother despite your differences, it seems like the reward is so much greater when it comes from that conflict; and through that cooperation there becomes something that other people can grab on to. It’s kind of like the theme that runs throughout the Bible, and that theme always makes for a good story.
It is interesting to hear you talk about it from that perspective because I can say as a fan that the songs definitely have that impact. So many of the songs carry us through hard times and rough times, the songs push us into the deeper truths. I still remember the first time I heard ‘God Sends Quails’, or ‘The Lust the Flesh the Eyes and the Pride of Life’, and the deeper truths that were found within the songs become clearer in a spiritual way. I remember thinking that it was OK to feel the way that I felt, the songs reinforced the notion that ‘this too shall pass’. For me growing up, I wasn’t getting these truths in church, but I was getting it through my music. So I would agree that the songs definitely have a lasting impact. They were formative for me in helping shape my thinking.
I think back to when I was 16 and going through all the typical teenage problems. I was surrounded by the greatest rock music in the history of the world. It was rock’s golden age, and while the songs helped a lot, they would’ve helped a little more if I felt that I had the support of my church and that the singers were doing this with a sense of being connected to God. We had Larry Norman, and Phil Keaggy came around later, but there weren’t very many Christian singers that I respected. I think if there had been, it would have helped me and it would have blurred the dichotomy between the church and the world. Back then there wasn’t a bridge between those two worlds. The 77s kind of slipped into that place where we weren’t out of place in either world. We were relevant for your whole life and not just part of it.
I agree with you, but what I find odd as well were that bands like the 77’s, Adam Again or Michael Knott were the bands that were bridging the two worlds, but they were the bands that were looked at as being on the fringe.
We were kind of proud of the fact that a lot of Christian kids hid our records under their bed. It reminds me of the scripture that says “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind”. I think that was a problem for us growing up because we were being taught to conform and not to just be ourselves. If our band, and other bands that you mentioned, were able to help people feel okay about being who they were, and who God made them to be, I think that was a very important part of growing spiritually at that age. If you think the only way to be pleasing to God is to be like your father or to be like the people at church, then you’re going to have problems. Because if that isn’t who you are, then what do you do? Stuff like that causes a lot of emotional schizophrenia, which is what I went through as a kid. I was grateful that the 77s were able to play maybe a small role in undoing some of that. I felt like maybe we were role models that kids could feel safe mimicking, without having all the drugs and other things that rock personalities seemed to promote and represent. You can only do this at one point in your life. I don’t even think in those terms anymore. It was good that we got to do that while we younger and it was relevant. You’re concerned with those types of things at a point in your life, but as you get older you become concerned with other things.
Yeah I guess it’s a progression…
It is. At this point I’ve become more concerned with whether I am being grateful, or am I being generous with my time, my gifts and my talents …that kinda stuff.
Well, I know for your fans, your gifts and talents have gone a long way and meant a lot to us through the years…
Gosh thanks. Even though we didn’t get what we wanted at the time, if you’re a true artist you eventually realize that it isn’t about something to do with record sales or popularity or fame, but it is rather about the stuff of life. I found out later that maybe that’s what it was all about in the first place. I found out that it’s not about rock stardom but rather about the way the songs have impacted people’s lives. That’s why these songs are important, and that’s probably why their memory has lasted. So I was able to take away from the experience a broader vision of what this music means to me. Originally we wanted to wear funny haircuts, make a lot of money and be famous. There were all types of different motives — some good, some not so good. Some were selfish and some not so selfish. But fortunately, it’s been the impact of the songs upon people who really needed them that has lasted.