Starship’s Mickey Thomas Explains How He Restored the Band’s Classic Sound
Ultimate Classic Rock recently had the pleasure of premiering the lyric video for ‘It’s Not The Same As Love,’ the lead single from ‘Loveless Fascination,’ which is the first new album from Mickey Thomas and Starship in nearly 25 years.
Foreigner bassist Jeff Pilson, also well-known for his work with ‘80s hard rockers Dokken produced the new album and wrote the bulk of the material as well. The combination of Pilson with Thomas and Starship is a winning one, resulting in a body of songs that fit in nicely with the stylings of the much-loved albums which were released by the classic lineup of the group in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.
The similarities are intentional, as Thomas told Ultimate Classic Rock during a conversation from his home. “I decided to get back [and] to make a Starship record that would sound more like the late ‘70s/ early ‘80s Starship as opposed to the late ‘80s Starship.” He also explains that wanted to go for a more “organic” classic rock sound that would be closer to the material that the band was recording at the end of the ‘70s, captured in a fashion that would not feel as produced as the sound of the group’s later albums.
We spent some time talking with Thomas about the new album and also dug into the past a bit and he had some great stories, including telling us about that one time he got a chance to work with Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange….
This album is a very welcome surprise, because it’s been a very long time since there’s been a new Starship album. The band has certainly been active in those years, why has it taken so long for new music to be released?
Various reasons. It just seems like over the years that I stopped and started a lot of Starship projects and for various reasons it just never felt right. I think maybe in my own mind, I didn’t have a real clear definitive idea of the kind of statement I wanted to make. It seems like I would always catch myself trying to recreate maybe what the Starship at the peak of its commercial success [had done]. And then I had to realize, wait, it’s a different world now. [Laughs] This is not 1985, or ‘86 or even ‘87 anymore. So after stopping and starting many times, I decided that “really, okay, we’re a classic rock band. Let’s make a classic rock record.”
Jeff Pilson is an important piece of the puzzle for this new album. How do you know Jeff and how early did he become a part of the process of making this album?
Well, I did a blues album a couple of years ago and the guy that I did that with, knew Jeff and actually played me some of Jeff’s songs. So that was how I first got introduced to Jeff’s music. Then I started at one point actually making the Starship record with that guy, who had played me Jeff’s songs and then that wasn’t working out right. It just didn’t feel right, so we had a falling out and then I thought, “you know, I really dig these tunes, so why don’t I just call up Jeff and we can go in and make a record!” So we did!
I called up Jeff and we started talking. He’s got a nice little studio over in Santa Clarita, just north of L.A. We started hanging out, making the record and then everything fell into place -- it just clicked. You know how you feel like you can...you just go after something for so long and so long, you feel like, “Oh God, this is never going to work.” The longer you try it and the longer it doesn’t happen, the more it feels like it’s never going to happen. But once Jeff and I got together and clicked, then it happened really fast.
You’re on the road promoting the new album, which means you’re facing the always-tricky question of how to leave room for new material in the set list without alienating the fans who show up to hear you play the hits. What’s your approach to that on this tour?
I want to work in at least three songs from the new album. We’re working on five or six of them, and we’ll try them at various times to see which ones work best. We have a show coming up in New York City, which is kind of a record release party, so we’ll probably do all six of them at that particular show. We’ll do a mini-set within the regular set.
It’s tough, but a lot of times, it has to do with where you place the new songs in the set list. I’ve found that you don’t want to come right out of the gate with one, but if you place them kind of early in the show, the audience is a little more responsive.
For rock bands who had hits in the ‘80s, it can be hard just to figure out what you’re supposed to sound like in the 21st century -- especially if, like Starship, you’re coming off a long layoff. You can’t try to recapture that old sound without seeming self-conscious, but you also can’t totally reinvent yourself without alienating people or sounding like you’re trying too hard.
That’s exactly right, and it’s a fine line there. That’s one reason it took so long between albums -- trying to redefine ourselves and answer that question of, “Well, what kind of album am I making?” Is it going to be where Starship ended up in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, or is it something new? Starship is a band that has evolved and changed, and explored a lot of musical directions over time, so there were a lot of options to choose from.
Now that the new record is out, I’m guessing you’ve got plenty of songs in your personal vault, waiting to be recorded -- and I’m also guessing you don’t intend to take this long to finish a follow-up.
No, definitely not. I was just talking to Jeff and telling him I can’t wait to get back into the studio. Once I started working with him, this really felt like a band record -- as opposed to some of the Starship albums from the mid-to-late ‘80s, where we were still a band, but we were using a lot of outside writers. You still end up with a good album, but sometimes things sound disparate in terms of genres and styles; it starts to sound too songwriter-y and less like a band. Working with Jeff brought coherence and a consistency of sound.
Are there important things that you look for when recording material for Starship? Are there certain things that have to be in there for you for it to feel right?
You know, I think more than anything it’s my voice that would be the identifying factor. I think people have come to expect me to at least do a good amount of my vocals in a higher range and fortunately I’ve been able to maintain and keep that range over the years. Sometimes I have to be sure in the process of making a record and in the production of the record and then actually in the writing and arranging of the record that I capture that. I want to be sure that I capture what people are going to expect to hear from Mickey Thomas in every song.
The band moved into using material from outside writers more and more in the ‘80s. On the vocalist’s side of things, that’s not always the easiest thing to pull off to interpret the material and deliver the proper vision. But that’s something you’ve always been able to do very successfully.
Yeah and especially, I really wanted this record to have a coherency to it. So in using outside songs, what really makes this cool is that 80 percent of the songs are all written by Jeff. Obviously, I made my contributions to all of his songs and the evolution of the songs in the studio. That’s what gives it a real band feel, I think, because we had that continuity of so many of the songs obviously coming from the same writing place and it gives it more of a rock and roll band feel than an album you might hear that just has 12 songs and 12 different writers on it.
You’ve done your share of co-writing --- is that something you’ve wanted to do more of over the years?
Yeah, I’ve actually been working on a new blues album with Elvin Bishop…
Yeah, Elvin and I have reconnected in the last couple of years and we’re working on a new blues album with Tab Benoit and I’ve actually been writing a lot for that record with Tab and Elvin. So there may be some hope for me as a writer, yet. [Laughs]
Do you tend to write a lot or do you only write when you feel like you have to?
Just when I feel like I have to! [Laughs]
It’s usually split one way or the other…
It’s kind of like everything I do in life. I perform best under the gun when it’s near the deadline and it’s got to be done. That’s kind of when I do it.
Looking at the 'Love Among The Cannibals' album, the credits indicate that there were a lot of cooks in the kitchen for that album, but it still came together as a really cohesive release. The band lineup had changed with Grace Slick departing from the band prior to that album. It just seems like it might have been a complicated period to put together an album and have it turn out as well as it did.
It was. As you mentioned, we went through lots of producers on that record. I counted one time, I think we used 13 different recording studios while making that record. But it is my favorite Starship record. It’s the record that when I put it on right now, sonically, it holds up and it sounds like a record that could have been made last week to me. A lot of that was Tom Lord-Alge, who produced a lot of it, very cutting edge. Mike Shipley, who was a Mutt Lange disciple [also added a lot]. Mutt Lange actually produced two songs on the album but without getting production credit for it.
He produced “I Didn’t Mean To Stay All Night” and “It’s Not Enough” with Mike Shipley, but Shipley as I said was kind of his protege, so Mutt kind of stayed in the background. But of course his influence is felt on those songs.
That’s interesting, because I saw the thank you to him on the record -- and you always wonder what that’s about.
You know, I was always a big fan of the Beatles and the first wave of the British Invasion bands in the ‘60s which is the biggest reason why I even ever started doing this. So I always wanted to record in England and I’d never had a chance to do that. So the song “I Didn’t Mean To Stay All Night,” which Mutt surreptitiously produced and I was telling him that story. So we got the whole song recorded and he said “let’s go to London and do the lead vocal” so I went to London and recorded the lead vocal with Mutt on that one. So I got to record in England finally!
So what was that experience like, working with him?
Yeah, I would imagine!
He’s a perfectionist, but in a very nice way, I mean, he’s not a jerk or anything like that. He’s always very gentlemanly, kind and quiet and soft-spoken….BUT, he will really put you through your paces, you know? I call him the Stanley Kubrick of rock and roll producers, because he’ll want you to sing a line 50 times. You’re out there [recording] line by line and I’m singing [and thinking] what does he want? After about the 50th time, he’ll go “okay, that’s it!” and I’m thinking what did I do different? [Laughs] That’s the same way I just sang it the last 20 times, but that’s the process with Mutt. It requires a lot of patience.
It seems like things fell apart a bit after that album. It’s a shame that things couldn’t continue onward from a recording standpoint, on the heels of that album. Because it seems like there was some good momentum.
Yeah, I think so too. You know, what a lot of people don’t realize is that because the album didn’t really perform like they had hoped it would or as much as the two Starship albums right before it, [it was hard to move forward]. But that being said, “It’s Not Enough” was a Top 10 single on Billboard and was number four on the MTV charts. That song got a lot of exposure, but then after that is when things started to unravel and one thing led to another and a lot of negative things happened and we lost the momentum.
How do you pick up from an experience like that? Because you were right on the edge of when grunge and all of that stuff came in. So how do you carry a heritage band forward through all of those years and stick in a way that we’re talking today.
Well, you know it’s not easy. For all practical purposes, in 1991 we just put Starship to rest. I went in and recorded a couple of new tracks for the greatest hits album and then at that point in time in my mind, it was over -- Starship is done. A couple of years go by and people are saying, “When are you going on the road and when are you going on tour? When’s another album? We want to hear more Starship.” So I realized, “well, maybe it’s not over?” But none of the other former members at that time were interested in reconnecting. Craig [Chaquico] by that point of time was deeply involved in his acoustic jazz albums and that part of his career.
My former keyboard player was off making music for movies and so that’s when I reformed the band with all new guys. Most of them are still with me 20 years later! My drummer and keyboard player have been with me for 20 years and my bass player for 15 years, so the core of the band is the longest running lineup in the history of the band.
You’ve contributed quite a few musical moments to pop culture...one of the polarizing ones seems to be the Starship song 'We Built This City.' What do you think it is about that song that rubs some people the wrong way?
I think there’s a couple of factors involved in that. One, the overriding factor was when a lot of people didn’t care for the direction that rock music was taking in the ‘80s as far as recording techniques, processes and the sounds. A lot of rock and roll bands were sort of catering more towards contemporary hits radio. I think for a band like Starship, that was even taken to another level, because the standards were so different for a band that emerged out of the ‘60s from Jefferson Airplane. So people had a tendency to really romanticize that era and the whole counter-cultural and underground aspect of music in the ‘60s.
So for Starship, it was an even bigger sellout than say Journey, Whitesnake or some other band like that, because of the history of the band. I think as I’ve said before that ‘We Built This City’ just kind of became the poster child of a whole trend of music that a lot of people didn’t care for, whether they were wrong or right. And then came Blender Magazine, which put the stamp of approval on that whole concept. [Laughs]
So I understand it, but would I take it back? The first number one single in the history of the band? That was an exciting time for us. We were digging that. And the song, we accomplished exactly what we set out to accomplish. We thought “we’re going to reinvent the band, this is the sound we’re going for and we’re going to use all of these new modern machines, techniques and recording processes and sounds to our advantage and have fun with it.” It was like a whole new palette of colors to work with. So that’s what we set out to do and we did it!
Next to the ‘Love Among The Cannibals’ album, that might be the most consistent Starship album from that era.
In some ways, I think it was a groundbreaking record. I know a lot of my musician friends in L.A. at the time. Guys in bands and guys who were studio musicians were calling me going “wow, how’d you get that sound on ‘Sara’? Who produced that?” Because we were one of the first bands to really get deeply into the whole Synclavier sounds and we were using samples that were very organic samples or orchestras that were real orchestras -- it was a sample, but it was a real orchestra -- you could do that with a Synclavier.