Taken from The Olympian (March 26, 2010)
Respect for music, fans
by ERNEST A. JASMIN, Staff writer
He started railing against the mind-numbing effects of television and the military-industrial complex as part of underground hip-hop and spoken-word groups the Beatnigs and Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
His next band, Spearhead, became a staple of college radio and even landed on MTV in the mid-’90s.
But mostly the group built its sizable cult following with dynamic live shows and little mainstream radio support – that is, until the infectiously upbeat “Say Hey (I Love You)” took the Triple-A stations by a storm last year.
Expect Michael Franti & Spearhead to close with that number Wednesday night when they open for John Mayer at KeyArena.
Speaking of Mayer, he’d made a little news the week we caught up with Franti; something about using the N-word in a men’s magazine? Maybe you heard about it?
Your tour mate John Mayer got in some hot water, and I guess he just apologized the other night in Nashville. I’m assuming you read the comments he made in the Playboy interview.
Yeah, I did.
What was your initial reaction?
I was very surprised at his remarks, and I went and found him and had a private conversation with him about it. He was very remorseful at the time, and I really feel like everybody has to be accountable and responsible for the things they say and do, and I encouraged him to do that. That’s pretty much it.
Having gotten to know him on tour, to what would you attribute the things he said?
I wouldn’t say that I know him well enough to judge why he said what he did. The things that he said were very far out and inflammatory and hurtful to a lot of people. I couldn’t venture to say why he would have been in that space to even say those things.
It sounds like the feelings are kind of squashed about it?
Well, yeah. I mean, I told him exactly how I felt. To be honest, I prefer to leave my prior conversations more private than he does on his Twitter page. But that’s it. I shared what I thought with him.
How did you wind up on the John Mayer tour?
I’ve been a fan of John’s music for a long time. (He’s) an incredible guitarist, songwriter, singer. And John had been a fan of my music. So he invited us out.
How long do you get to play?
We do an hourlong set. Most of the people who are there have never seen us perform before. … A lot of people know (“Say Hey”) but didn’t know that I was the person who sang it. So it’s a really great thing to have a chance to play in front of people and then play that song at the end of set.
Was suddenly having a hit a surprise for you?
Yeah, it was a huge surprise to us because we had put out our album in September of 2008. … Then in the spring of 2009, some top 40 stations found the song and started playing it.
My appendix ruptured. I was getting wheeled down to get my appendix taken out and get all the infection taken care of. Someone said, “Michael, your song just went into the top 40.” And I was thinking, “Great, finally I have a song on the radio and I’m not gonna live to hear it.”
It was a good wake-up call. It was a reminder for me that there’s so much more to life than music and having songs on the radio. Your friends, your family, your health, your quality of life are way bigger than that.
Despite not being an MTV guy, you can see the massive response you get when you play places such as Bumbershoot and Sasquatch. What’s the secret of your success?
We put on the best show that we can and every fan that we interact with – or every person at a hotel that we meet, or every taxi driver or backstage crew at a local venue – we treat ’em with respect and a smile.
That just has multiplied over the years. Hit songs get people’s attention for a short span of time, but when you create that kind of intimate connection with your fan base … then you get something that’s more valuable than that, which is people that are there with you for life. They follow your art. They follow your career. They come to your shows. So even during this time, when CD sales continue to plummet year after year, our fan base continues to grow and grow. (For) that we’re super grateful.
In the beginning you were more hip-hop centric. In recent years, you’ve become more reggae-centric and groove-oriented and anthemic. Can you point to a sea change in your music?
There was a point about seven years ago, I guess, when I started playing guitar. I had never really played an instrument except for, like, drum machines and samplers in the studio up to that point. The reason I did it is I wanted to play music for people in the street. I started busking everywhere I’d go … seeing the response and learning that people want to sing along and they want to dance and they want to clap their hands to the songs.
The songs have to be simple enough that you can sing along to them in the chorus, but they have to have enough depth in the lyrics so that if someone goes back to it time after time they can learn something new about the song, about themselves, about people they love, about you as an artist. So that’s what I’ve tried to do as time goes on. (Reggae has) always been a part of my life from the time I was a kid. But I never thought as an American I could use those sounds. But when I started working with Sly & Robbie, they said, you know, reggae is not a culture or a nationality. It’s just a rhythm, so anybody can use it.
After you get off tour, do you have other projects coming up?
Because the last album was such a late bloomer, we were already into making a new album at the time when “Say Hey” really started to take off. We’ve got about two or three songs to finish. We’ll put out another single from a new album in probably May or June. And this album is gonna come out in September.