Taken from Portland Online MusicNet (November, 2001)
MICHAEL FRANTI of SPEARHEAD
In terms of world music, there are few bands around that can appeal to audiences universally, anywhere in the world, and gather new fans every step of the way. Spearhead is one such band. Started in 1994 and led by founder Michael Franti, Spearhead brings it's multi-ethnic sounds to rabid fans across the globe, and is currently making the rounds under the SnoCore Icicle Ball blanket, which will prove to be a good one this year. The latest album, STAY HUMAN, is in some ways a concept album in the respect that nit's songs coincide with a storyline, in this case a human rights question in the form of a woman who is wrongly accused and subsequently executed for a crime that many believed she was innocent of, and a tiny pirate radio station which makes it it's job to spread the word about this travesty.
In the days before the SnoCore Icicle Ball was to commence across the USA, I talked with Michael about the record and tour, and despite of his sometimes radical messages in his music proved to be a calm and decent individual who above all else wants the best for his world and tries to bring it through his music rather that sit and complain about being in a world without caring, without hope, and without humanity.
We as a people all have the power to make changes when given the right tools, and with Spearhead behind us we cannot fail!
MF: Hi there. It's Michael Franti calling.
BC: Hello Michael! How are you this fine morning?
MF: Good Bob, and yourself?
BC: I can't complain. It's an early one for me. So, you are about to embark on the SnoCore tour. The Icicle Ball, that is. Are you pretty excited about this?
MF: Yeah, I am looking forward to it a lot. I'm excited because most of the time we tour, it is by ourselves and we have local support acts opening up for us, so you don't always have a chance to see the opening band or have much contact with the other musicians in a deep way. But on this tour there is ourselves, Karl Denson, Saul Williams, Blackalicious, Nika Costa doing some of the shows. It will be fun just to be around a daily dose of really good music.
BC: Yes, and you will be afforded the chance to interact with some of these greats as well. Now this is a Spearhead show, so will it be the original band you have used all these years?
MF: Yes. Our guitarist Dave is having a baby in the beginning of March, so he's not going to do part of the tour. Just the first few dates, and then we have another guy who will be working with us for about a month.
BC: You were here in Portland not too long ago, weren't you?
MF: Yes, we did.
BC: I had planned to see the last show here, but got waylaid and didn't make it. I see that record-wise you weren't putting out new records for about 4 years. What did you do during this hiatus, so to speak?
MF: Well, we didn't really stop touring during that time. We kept touring a lot, and I did some spoken-word tours with just me alone and with Jello Biafra doing spoken word as well. Getting out of our contract with Capitol Records took about a year of legal meandering, and then making this new album. We toured overseas and Europe a lot and never really came off the road. We were always out during that time.
BC: Speaking of spoken word, I just happened to notice that on the copy I got there is music only, and that the full release has some sort of radio broadcast stuff between the songs. Now in my book that is good and bad. I can concentrate on it's musical and vocal merits, however I feel that I was missing something, as there is a story involved. Reading about the story behind it I wonder if this came to you as a personal experience.
MF: Yeah, it all came from personal experience, as well as interacting with people and being inspired by people as a child. The original album which we recently put out as a narrative, and is a story that takes place between the songs. It is a radio show, and there is the story of a woman, social activist Sister Fatima, who is on death row who is accused of murder and there is some sketchy circumstances. There is a governor who is played by Woody Harrelson who is trying to execute her on the eve of the election, as he feels this will help him win the election for sure. So he does, and they execute this woman and he wins the election the next day. Then they find out they executed the wrong person when the murderer comes forward and confesses the crime. It is all told through the eyes of this little pirate radio station.
BC: A cool, yet disturbing concept, I must say. Is there anything in the works for making this a movie?
MF: Yes and no. We have been approached by some people to do some stuff, and sort of working on a script. But I'm not entirely sure if it is something I want to do yet. The record is one thing, but making a film of the whole thing might in some ways make it lose it's impact. But we wanted to do a version of the album of just the music, because a lot of our fans want to just hear the music.
BC: True - the die-hard music fan would likely be put off by the dialog and yakking in between, and it would change the view of the album. But now that I've heard all the tunes and know there is a story to go with it, I am going to be making a special point to hear the complete thing. I notice by listening to the lyrics that you touch down on many things familiar to me. Phrases like "every flower has a right to bloom" and everything down to Skin On The Drum is pretty much riddled with things from the news and life in general. Have the events of 9/11 inspired anything that you will be tearing into?
MF: Yes, I've been writing about that a little bit. Much of this stuff I have been writing after that have been songs of inspiration. I felt a lot of sadness, pain, and confusion following that event. I went and visited the site in New York, ground zero there, and the feeling that I left with having seen the massacre was "my god, how can we wish this stuff on anyone in the world?" and I really feel that the war we should concern ourselves with is not the war on terrorism, but the war on militarism. To drop bombs on other people to try to find a solution to this event is hypocritical at best, and criminal at worst.
BC: I agree to an extent. Us going over and blowing up a bunch of camels doesn't really seem like the answer. It is not the solution, and it is very expensive to boot.
MF: Expensive, yes. But mainly the tears of one mother are the same as any other. The pain we felt is the same pain that these other people are feeling all over the world every time we bomb them. It wasn't one or two bombs dropped like it was here, but thousands and thousands of bombs dropped for months. If we got this riled up and emotional over this, just imagine how people over there feel. Are we really promoting peace and prosperity and goodwill, or are we creating more anger in the world? So I have been working, just for myself, on coming to grips with what are the real means of creating peace and justice in the world. I wrote a song that I went and sang on the Craig Kilborn Show, and the lyrics said "we can chase down all our enemies and bring them to their knees, and we can bomb the world to pieces but we can't bomb them into peace." I sang that one on the show, and they asked me to sing another song, which I did, but they cut that song from the show when it aired. It made me realize that back in the 60's and seventies, when John Lennon was singing Give Peace a Chance that was a really hokey thing to sing. Really hippy-dippy. But I realized that during times of war, to sing about peace is really very radical, and is really going out on a limb!
BC: Yes, it surely was. And in view of the way he was treated afterwards confirms that the government rather gave him a hard run. They investigated the living crap out of him. I lived through that period, and while I didn't see where a bunch of flower children would change much, the awareness of the situation was a valuable thing, putting the people in a certain mind-set.
You travel a lot in your touring, I see. Of all the places on Earth you have been, what is your favorite in terms of beauty and feeling that it is the best spot on Earth?
MF: Well...some places do come to mind. I love going to New Zealand. I am connected to a lot of indigenous people there, and the sense of community there. The islands themselves there are very beautiful, from the snowy sights to the beaches there. But really I have found that it is not the destinations themselves, but my connection with the people, and there hasn't been a city in the world where the beautiful people haven't inspired me and made me think and made me question my notions about diversity. I am really into the acceptance of diversity and celebrating diversity. And just when you think you've seen it all, it challenges what I feel are my pretty broad notions of diversity. That is what I really love.
BC: That is a good thing - to be exposed to new un-thought-of things by new people that tends to make life richer. Unfortunately I don't get to travel, and I just know there is much wonder and amazement left
here on Earth for me. What's next for Spearhead after the SnoCore is wrapped up?
MF: We will be on SnoCore for 2 weeks, then it's off to Australia for 3 weeks, then we come back and rejoin the East coast SnoCore for 2 more weeks. Right now we are working on our next album, which should be finished by April. Then more touring, and at the end of May we go to Europe until July, where we will come back to the states. It will be just tour, record, tour, record, with a little basketball in between.
BC: I am really glad to see you guys on the SnoCore this year. I gotta hand it to those people, and we are pretty lucky to have SnoCore Icicle Ball floating through here every year, as it has brought in bands that appease a very special audience who does not seem to get enough of what they like, as far as the more eclectic bands go. I think it is a great service those people are doing for music.
Well thanks Michael - both for all the music and for taking the time to share thoughts with us today. Good luck on everything, and I will stop in at the Portland stop and say hi to you!
MF: Thank you too. Peace.