Taken from [V] Interviews - Michael Franti (April 14, 1998)
Spearhead spent a couple of weeks in Australia in April 1998 gigging and meeting the media - frontman Michael Franti dropped by Kyla's place in Bondi on 14 April for one afternoon of insights and articulate storytelling, as we've come to expect ...
Kyla: Welcome back to Australia, it's great that you're back here.
MF: It's nice to be here.
Kyla: What have you been doing since you've been here
MF: Since I've been here we've played the Offshore Festival on Friday night. We played the Byron Bay East Coast Blues Festival on Saturday and then also on Sunday, so we've just been playing non-stop; but yesterday I got to go for a swim in the ocean up at Byron Bay which was nice, the sun was shining.
Kyla: It's a beautiful place. Last time I saw you you were doing a spoken word and it was so amazing and I was thinking, What do you think is more powerful when you perform, spoken word or with Spearhead?
MF: Well it's like two different things. When you're doing spoken word it's really intimate. You're really like close up to people and you're planting seeds right into their ear and into their hearts and into their mind and you have a chance to really sit still and contemplate and then laugh and do all the other things you can do right there; but when I'm playing music live with the band it's more like physical. Your body is moving, dancing and people are sweating and jumping up and down and having fun. It's just two different ways of dealing but always what I'm looking for in what I do is joy, and joy to me is that point where the human is intersecting with the divine. There's always a point in my day or in my performance when I feel just that elation and that joy of really being together with other people and celebrating ideas or moments with the audience.
Kyla: With 'Chocolate Supahighway' were you pleased with what you were trying to get out there?
MF: Yeah, you know every time I make a record I try to grow and do different stuff and that's what we were doing at that time and it's taken us all over the world again so it's been good we've had a fun year. We just finished a film score that I did that Lawrence Fishburne starred in and that was a totally different thing, working on a film score; and now we're working on a new record right now. We've written about nine or ten new songs for this new record. We just keep plugging away and recording, travelling and touring.
Kyla: What was doing the film score like? What's the movie like?
MF: You know like we were talking about the spoken word, how when you don't have the music there, the words you really have to present them, you have to project them a whole different way to get the emotions across and when I'm doing a film score it's like they're someone else's words and they're acting in the pictures and so I'm just doing the music to get the emotions across and so it's exactly the opposite. I learned a lot having done both those things and it just helps me to become better, a better artist as a whole.
Kyla: Tell me about the new album.
MF: On this last record that we did that's out right now, 'Chocolate Supahighway', there's a lot of sort of slow and mid-tempo songs, and this record that we've been working on, a lot of up tempo stuff and as always I write about different stories and experiences from my life and things that I see going on. We recently finished a song about domestic violence because I've had a couple of situations in my life in the last year where friends of mine had been in relationships where there was a lot of violence and I had to approach them on it which is a really kind of difficult thing; but I think that's sort of the next step in where the revolution is going with gender it's not just equal rights in the work place but issues at home, especially with violence, how we as men are going to deal with it and solve the issue.
Kyla: What else has been happening in San Francisco in your studio?
MF: Oh man, San Francisco is a great place you've got to come out there we have a cool studio, it's just like a little hang spot. People come by and hang out and enjoy just what we're doing there and take time to just chill and listen to what we're doing. Actually on tour with us now we have a couple of other people. This guy named The Invisible Man who's another rapper - we've been working on some of his songs and Trina Simmons who's been in the group, she's been working on her music and this other guy Tony Moses who's a Jamaican poet and singer - he's been working on some of his poetry. We're going to do a spoken word album with him so there's a lot of other stuff going on
Kyla: You produce these other people?
MF: Yeah I produce. On the new record we worked with some other producers. Posdnous from De La Soul - he's been doing a couple of cuts with us. These two other produces named Jonathan Quarmby and Kevin Bacon who did Finley Quaye's record, that's a record that I like a lot this last year. They're doing some stuff with us and this other guy called DJ Choko. He's a hip hop producer from New York. He's worked with every hip hop artist in New York, He's doing stuff with us too.
Kyla: What do see happening in the hip hop world in the States?
MF: Well Puffy Puffy Puffy in the States. It's like Puffy and whatever else he has got his hands on but we've always kind of resided in a place that's somewhere between hip hop and somewhere else and so I don't really always just try to keep up with the trends as far as what I create but I kind of see myself as having my own niche within the world of music. It's just a storyteller and somebody who's trying to do positive things, transmitting positive energy and love through music
Kyla: Do you think Puffy's an incredibly switched-on guy or do you think he's ... I mean what do you think?
MF: I think that Puffy is of course very intelligent and very talented at what he is trying to do, is sell a lot of records and for some people they get into music because they want to sell millions of records. Other people get into music because they have a love for music or because they want to transmit ideas or whatever. I'm not really into like sampling songs and making them new contemporary hits or whatever, that's what he does. I kind of look at him like the Andy Warhol of hip hop. He's able to put all these different things together and created his pop art but I like a lot of his songs.
Kyla: What do you think about Erykah Badu?
MF: I love Erykah Badu, she's great cos I really think she puts a consciousness in her music which has been missing for a very long time especially from R&B. R&B has just become like these empty love songs and songs about sex and whatever which is fine cos there's a place for that but she also puts in what I consider to be soul music which is asking questions of the soul in the same way that Marvin Gaye or Sly Stone or Stevie Wonder has done in the past. She's great.
Kyla: Who are you listening to at the moment? Who do you just like playing over and over again?
MF: I listen to all kinds of old records. I listen to like Bill Withers a lot, Al Green a lot and U-Roy - just a lot of classic vinyl, whatever I pick up cos I travel. And I get given a lot of demo tapes and stuff when I'm on the road so I listen to a lot of peoples' tapes that I get handed to me all the time.
Kyla: With Spearhead, when you guys perform it is so amazing - people leave on a high. Does anyone do that to you?
MF: I haven't seen a lot of shows lately except for stuff when we're travelling around and we see the same band every night a lot of the times. I was inspired by Finley's show. I saw Finley Quaye's show the other day and of course Ben Harper I've known for a long time and I love Sade. I went and saw Sade again, I love Sade, she's great, I love her show. But I'm seeing people and they have the hit hip hop record and I'm all excited to go and see them and they're just up there with the DAT machine going back and forth doing the same old thing and it doesn't get me all excited. Erykah's show, is great I don't know if she has been down here but her show is awesome.
Kyla: You may not like this question but do you think there is pre-millennium tension happening?
MF: I don't know if tension is the word but I definitely know that a lot of people have this feeling in their gut that something different is going to come and I just feel like, well, if everybody has the same feeling in their gut then something has got to come out of it you know, and I think now is the time. It's like when you have new years and people say this year they want to quit smoking, it's like as a world it's time we can make some goals and say it's time to look at land rights for indigenous people; it's time that we look at the way that Africa has been dealt with by the rest of the world, it's time that we look at issues between men and women, gay rights and also different things that have kind of like been bubbling under the surface that people haven't really been willing to take a stand on and now is like the perfect opportunity as we go into the next century, especially us, as young people, we can say 'yo' you know. The way that the previous generations did stuff before we're not really cool with and now it's our time to sort of define what this next century is going to be and then a hundred years from now our kids and grandkids will go, God those old people, they were so stupid.
Kyla: Have you played in South Africa?
MF: We've never played there as yet. I really want to go play there. We toured with this band named Prophets of the City who are this hip hop group from South Africa and so we've had a lot of contact with South Africa over the years and even before that when the whole apartheid system kind of crumbled, with the Disposable Heroes, our records were pretty popular down there and so I had a lot of contact with young people who were trying to do things and make things happen down there, so I'm looking forward to going there.
Kyla: I've heard that some of the black people in America don't recognise black Africans. Why do you think that is?
MF: The reason is because when we were bought to America as slaves there was a very systematic effort to sort of de-culturalise us and pull us away from our ties. All our religious beliefs and practices and drums and language were literally physically beaten out of us til the point where we just had to really adapt to what was taking place in America and so a lot of people don't have that connection and affinity; and then you have like these old Tarzan movies of black people throwing spears in the jungle. A lot of people both black and white still have that same impression and it's only in the last sort of 15, 10 years and especially through hip hop, of people having a consciousness of Africa, that people have really started in our generation to become accepting.
More and more people are going to visit the continent now and our President Clinton was just over there He was there for 10 days and it's the longest time any US president has ever spent in Africa; the last president to go to Africa was President Carter in 1979 and then Bush went there for two days to Somalia but he just went there because we were having like a war there. So it's like the first diplomatic effort ever since almost twenty years. It's ridiculous.
Kyla: What do you think about Bill Clinton?
MF: He's in hot water right now. I think Bill Clinton is a very tricky politician and I don't like the stuff that he does but I think that the whole system in America is one that needs to be dismantled and re-worked; but he's like had all these problems with this womanising stuff and for a long time I always just sort of felt like I don't care who he's screwing in private and I don't want to know who he screws in public. But now I kind of feel like there's a certain point when you're crossing the line of honesty and deception and I can't trust him, but I was never able to trust any politician.
Kyla: Would you ever get into politics?
MF: Hell no. I mean there's enough politics at a record label, I don't need to do it on a national level. That's not what I see as my calling you know and one time I don't know if I've told you this story before but one time we were touring with U2 as Disposable Heroes and I was flying with Bono; he took us on his plane one time to this gig and he was telling me about his time in Africa after 'We Are The World' stuff was going on. He went to Africa and spent some time in Ethiopia and he was digging ditches in this village and he felt like he was doing this really good thing because 'Joshua Tree' was this huge album; he was a superstar and didn't want to be that, he wanted to be like this man of the earth. So he's digging these ditches and after the first day they came up to him, Bono, respectfully you know, We really appreciate your effort here but you're like the worse ditch-digger we've ever seen, you've like slowed us down three days of work, we're going to have to make it up now.
And he said what you are is U2 you're a storyteller and a songwriter and we would really like you to write some songs for our community. So him and his wife spent some time writing like these songs about boiling water and about child birth and about contraception and stuff - things that were important to the village at the time and so that's how he made his contribution; and they said that in our village we really respect songwriting and storytelling and that there's nothing to be ashamed about of being that. I think that especially in pop music people think thatwhat you do doesn't really mean very much but it really means a lot. It doesn't matter if you're the Spice Girls or Bob Marley, there's somebody who you're touching and helping to get through a very difficult time of their youth or of wondering if they're going to live today or commit suicide. Sometimes a song is just enough to get you through that time. It's important.
Kyla: With Steve Marley on 'Chocolate Supahighway', what was that like?
MF: It was great working with Steven cos he, you know, really carries his father's energy and his father's voice; just the sound of his voice, but also the spirituality that his father held and the love of humankind, so it was just great to spend time all the Marleys, especially Steven, recording. It was a deep experience.
Kyla: When you're touring around and it's busy and stuff, how do you relax and rejuvenate?
MF: What I've started doing over the last year is I've learned to meditate and basically I spend time in the morning when I get up and before a show and directly after, just taking time to sit still and clear my mind and sort of revive. There has been times when I've been out on the road where you really just feel incredibly stressed out and tired and exhausted and I've found that through meditation I'm able to get that energy back up to go back and face people and just be in the momentI really appreciate what I have this second that I'm living.
Kyla: How do you come up with your inspiration? What inspires you to keep going?
MF: First of all just godliness and having faith you know. I read this thing the other day that Jacques Cousteau had said: Thank God that we as human beings are not logical because if we were logical we would project into the future and see this horrific time ahead of us but thank God that we are creative and that we carry spirit in our hearts and that we have faith, which is a belief beyond logic you know? And that's what really keeps me going, is just the faith and seeing little guys like this, (holding up Kyla's puppy) meeting people and having fun.
Kyla: Have you got a message for the world?
MF: No no. I only have one message and that's try to be good to people that are good to you and stay creative and just give thanks every moment for the time that we have right here cos it's really precious. We don't know when it can be taken away or someone around us is going to be taken away from us and don't take things for granted.