Mike Milligan: Harp Attack
By Josep Pedro
Houston native Mike Milligan is one of Austin best blues attractions. His music, fully intense and emotional, is a usually up tempo and witty version of the blues that brings in fresh energy and excitement. Mike is responsible for keeping it alive in 6th Street where he has been playing regularly for years as front man and leader of the Altar Boyz. An experienced musician who has played and toured all over the nation and in different parts of Europe, Mike grew up with soul music and rock ‘n’ roll -hence his energetic approach to music- but gradually got trapped in the blues ultimately undertaking its redefinition.
Musically passionate and forceful, Mike Milligan is surprisingly a rather quiet guy. Almost shy, generous and friendly, Mike prefers to be talkative on stage where he is comfortable among his peers trying to get people involved. Not a typical blues singer, Mike has an original sound of his own; an increasingly convincing feeling that perfectly matches his tireless harp blowing. Overall, his mighty presence, easy going semblance and impressive live performances withstand, in their own way, comparisons with the deepest blues.
I once asked Mike about what the “Texas Blues with Louisiana Attitude” motto meant and, after a couple of insistent, hopeful tries, Mike said: “It’s the music, man!” Well, that to me reveals his appealing personality. This desirable homely simplicity does come through his music and stage persona. He is into music to enjoy, and to work his heart out thus the Blues is safe with Mike Milligan on his side. Hopefully you’ll come up to him (I did on Monday nights) and, after a couple of times, he’ll crack a friendly smile at you.
Growing Up With Music
Music in Austin
Interests and Plans
Growing Up With Music
“[The Jimi Hendrix Experience] changed my whole music interest. I went from Motown to rock ‘n’ roll. Rock ‘n’ roll was my favorite music for a long time.”
When did you start learning music?
I started singing when I was 5 years old, in the church. I also started playing piano at that time. My mom took me to piano lessons, at the same age, 5 years old. I played piano through elementary school and through high school actually. But I quit taking lessons when I was really young so by the time I was in high school I almost had forgotten all of the good stuff. But I still remember how to read music.
What music were you listening to at that time?
When I was growing up it was mostly the early Motown stuff, Temptations, Four Tops, Sam Cooke, the early Ike and Tina Turner, Stax, Joe Tex… I remember The Beatles coming out in 63. I remember watching that show on Ed Sullivan. That kind of got my attention but what really caught my attention was when I was 17 I was taking drum lessons from this kid in high school, and he had The Jimi Hendrix Experience, the first album, and he played that for me. That just changed my whole music interest. I went from Motown to rock ‘n’ roll. Rock ‘n’ roll was my favorite music for a long time. I still listened to and liked Motown stuff but my basic interest turned rock. That was the music I played up until I moved to Austin [laughs]. It was either straight ahead rock ‘n’ roll or jazz fusion.
How did the church influence a future generation of artists coming up?
Well, a lot, I imagine. Because when you’re young, everybody has to go to church. I’d say a lot. Aretha Franklin came out the church… I remember listening to Mahalia Jackson when I was young. That was awesome. It was pretty big business too. There were some extremely talented gospel singers. All the guys that are my age definitely came from the church.
Mike blowing his harmonica
What was the way you learnt to play different instruments?
Well, piano was piano lessons. I took lessons. When I played saxophone while I was in high school I was taught by the band teacher. After that, drums a kid in high school taught me how to play drums, basic drums and after that I just taught myself. Harmonica, which I’ve only played for ten years basically, I’ve pretty much taught myself just playing.
Tell me about your origins and about that contact with the New Orleans flavor.
Well, my mum’s parents were from Natchitoches, Louisiana. But I was born and raised in Angleton, Houston. [It was] not very much till I started playing in Louisiana. In the mid eighties I had a band in Houston and we used to go to Louisiana a lot. That’s when I started hearing how zydeco influenced blues and rock, and that kind of caught my attention. In the band I had before this, called Delta Roux, the majority of stuff we did was heavily Louisiana influenced. I wrote the songs with the guitar player, and he was a real big Louisiana musician.
“As far as the music goes, I would say that the blues
has to be the hardest music genre to be successful in this country.”
With your current band, Mike Milligan & the Altar Boyz, you’ve defined your style as Texas Blues with Louisiana attitude. So, for the second time, I’m gonna ask if you can explain that.
[Laughs] Well, since this is Austin, Texas we try to stick to the traditional feel. We try to go with the Texas Blues sound but I’m always gonna have that little touch from Louisiana. It’s always gonna influence ‘cause I like the rhythmic things that come from the music of Louisiana, and it makes things a little different. If you want to be successful you have to be a bit different. You can’t sound like this guy, you gotta sound like you. That’s what I use to make my music mine.
Tell me about your involvement with the band.
The Altar Boyz, they already had that name, but they had a female singer. It was Dee Dee Priest & the Altar Boyz but she moved to Amsterdam, and when she left Leland asked me if I wanted to sing, and I said: “Yeah, sure.”
Do you produce your records with Doc Blues Records?
Well, it’s pretty much self-produced by me. We use doc blues records for distribution. We try and make it as live as possible. Everybody plays to lay down the basic tracks and we go back in and we do the vocals, put down the lead guitar and the harmonica leads.
The Altar Boyz (Scott Unzicker, Mike Milligan, and Leland Parks)
You also recorded an album called Dirty Shoes (Taxim, 2000) with Delta Roux. I found a copy at the UT Fine Arts library.
That was done in 2000, it was our first CD. The guitar player, Harry Bodine, his music was based around slide guitar, heavy delta and Louisiana influence. [We did] pretty much 50-50 songwriting. I wrote songs, Harry Bodine wrote songs, and then we wrote a lot of songs together. Actually, that record label was Taxim out in Germany so we got to tour Europe about four times between 2000 and 2004.
How was the experience different?
I like Europe a lot. If I could afford to live there, I would. Maybe someday. I love Europe, it was fantastic. They have such a deeper appreciation for music, different kinds of music, and the people that played there… It was a joy to be around there. In this country it’s commercial, music is way too commercial. Music is top 40, top 40… so it’s tuff for somebody, especially blues musicians, to set up records. B.B. King can do that because he’s been doing it for so long. Albert King, Bobby Blue Bland, all those guys…
As far as the music goes, I would say that the blues has to be the hardest music genre to be successful in this country. Pop rock is first, country –which is not really country anymore, is more rock ‘n’ roll, jazz… Jazz too, I’d say. Top 2 Jazz and blues as far as being successful in this country. Getting back to European appreciation for music, what impressed me was the respect they had for musicians. And we weren’t playing coliseums; we were playing clubs and festivals. It was uplifting. It was extremely pleasing to the ego but also shows you how much people could get into music. In Europe they have foundations at school, fund people to do musical projects… Here they should give more emphasis to music and music appreciation in schools.
It seems you work a lot of live performances but very little on records. It’s hard to get a contract with a record company to sell records, or even to do records.
Yeah, it was easier to get signed with a record label in the seventies and eighties than it is now. Plus, now with the Internet is a big change.
What are you working on now?
Well, I’m always writing new songs. The next CD I’d like to do live because working on a studio doesn’t really capture this band’s intensity, and we are kind of intense. [Laughs] I’d like to have it done live to get the true feel in the sound.
Ernie Durawa, Mike Milligan, and Louie Ortega
Music in Austin
“The people who are playing blues nowadays, the majority of them are white and I say:
What the hell is up with that?’ We created this music. Jesus.”
You host a jam session here at Maggie Mae’s every Monday night. Tell me about the significance that jams have for musicians.
It’s a place to learn how to get better and also learning how to play with people, which is real important. Especially for guitar players, you can’t play [loud] all the time because you will bury everybody else. It teaches you how to be respectful to other musicians while you’re playing. It’s just good learning too. The only way you can get better is to play, and you learn more by playing with people that are better than you because you pick up stuff.
Do you prefer to play acoustic or amplified?
It depends on what you’re trying to relate. Definitely when you’re playing with a drummer, a bass player and a guitar player you wanna be amplified. [Laughs] But if you’re just sitting around with an acoustic guitar, acoustic; you get that true Delta feel ‘cause that’s the way those guys used to play.
Austin has been named the Live Music Capital of the World.
What do you think about that?
I’d say that for all the places I’ve been, Austin does have a really big live music scene. As far as being the live music capital of the world I don’t know [laughs]. That’s a tough question. I don’t wanna despise Austin but considering they’re gonna use that tag for your city, they should treat the musicians better.
Now we play in three different places but we used to play only in two places on 6th street. That’s here, Maggie Mae’s, and B.D. Riley’s because they pay. All the rest of these other places… [Mike shakes his head in denial]. I’m too old for that. I mean, is not all about the money. I’d play for nothing just to play, that’s the way I think about it but it’s nice to get paid. It’s close to what you think you would and not have to suffer playing gigs that don’t pay you nothing. Most of the times people won’t pay attention to you anyway.
Mike and Leland on stage
It seems like a contradiction if you claim to be the Live Music Capital of the World.
It was different back in the seventies. It was a lot more. I mean, back in the seventies and eighties -that was when 6th street was 6th street; I can see them calling it that back then. These days… nah.
Even big festivals like South by Southwest don’t pay most of the bands.
Right, South by Southwest is supposed to be showcase for people to expose to people in the music business so they can do something for them. It has happened. It’s been guys sign off the stage at South by Southwest. Hanson, those three brothers, were discovered in Austin, Texas. They were singing at a street corner during South by Southwest. It can happen. But they didn’t do anything for me! [Laughs]
From your experience, how has the musical scene changed throughout the years?
In the seventies I was living in Iowa. I played rock ‘n’ roll drums and lead singer. I played in Iowa, Virginia, Wisconsin, North and South Dakota, Minnesota… This was from 1973 to 1976. Back then it pretty much at weekends. Then I moved to Colorado in 1976 and the band I had there we played the whole north. And we played Colorado, we played Mexico, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington State, Oregon and California. In the late seventies and through the eighties there was a lot of places you could play and you’d be there for three days, four days, a week, two weeks… and they paid extremely well. Now those gigs don’t exist anymore. It’s one night, two nights if you’re lucky. That’s anywhere in this country except for casinos, and I don’t wanna be there!
It’s tougher now for musicians to make good money ‘cause back then, between 1976 and 1986, I made a lot of money playing music around Colorado, and now unless you’re a national touring act you’re not gonna make that kind of money. I still like touring. Two years from now, when I’m done with my day job I’m gonna concentrate on getting out of Texas, going to Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, California, go back to Colorado to play and it’s gonna be three, four days and come back home. That’s pretty much it. It’s the only way you can do it to make a living at it. It’s like touring Europe, you know. If you’re gonna tour Europe, and you have a day off you’re losing money, and Europe is expensive. You gotta sell a lot of records, and the only way you’re gonna sell a lot of records is to have a lot of people see you play. So you gotta travel.
Mike with Tish Lancaster
Talking about different places like Chicago, Kansas City… There are a lot of Texan musicians that are often not thought as Texan because they moved up North. Why did so many of these great musicians leave the South?
In the old days you’re talking? Jim Crow, prejudice… Basically there was a different attitude, like in comparison of playing here and playing in Europe; there’s a different attitude. Playing down South in the fifties was rough, as you know. You got no respect, no respect at all being a black musician in the fifties down south except from black people.
What can you tell me about the chitlin’ circuit and places like the Victory Grill?
East Austin, yeah. The Victory Grill was an extremely popular place back in the fifties in Austin, Texas. A lot of people played there. That place has got a lot of history. It’s a shame the shape it’s in nowadays for a place that had so much music running through it back in that time.
You know, what also kills me is… how many black guys you see in this jam Monday night? [Laughs] The people who are playing blues nowadays, the majority of them are white and I say: “What the hell is up with that?” We created this music. Jesus. I think hip-hop was the worst fuck…, the worst thing that ever gonna happen to my people as far as the music goes. They forgot their history. They don’t think of their history and they forget where all that stuff came from.
Aren’t Black people interested in blues anymore?
Some, not enough. Not nearly enough.
In terms of big sales the sixties already saw the rise of white blues musicians.
Look how a big influence was Muddy Waters and all those guys had on the Rolling Stones. They would ga-ga for Muddy Waters. And Eric Clapton and all those guys… All that stuff came from them listening to those old blues records.
Interests and Plans
“I could sit and listen to the blues all day.
But I pick up a lot of different stuff, not lock myself into one thing.”
What do you think about the blues often being associated with being sad, having the blues?
Well, it’s not always about being sad. There’s great blues love songs. But the basic premise is singing because you’re hurt in the heart. That’s what the blues is, pouring out an emotion out of the heart. That’s why they say playing from the heart…
I believe you have another job apart from being a musician. Do you want to talk about that?
Well, now you’ve mentioned it… Right now I have my boy who is 21 years old. He’s in college, so just playing music is not gonna pay for that so I have to work days. I’m basically working for my kid to make sure he has all that he needs till he’s through college. Then in a couple of years I’m gonna retire anyway, at the exact time he’s gonna be done with school. Then I can play music every night if I wish without have to worrying about getting up in the morning.
Do you have any lifetime favorite bands or records?
My greatest influence is Frank Zappa. That’s my favorite artist of all time. It’s outstanding the stuff he did in his lifetime. It blows me away. As far as my harmonica playing, my greatest harmonica influences are James Cotton, Little Walter… My favorite harp player is Magic Dick from the J. Geils Band. As far as my vocalist stylings; Sam Cooke… As a drummer, which I’m also, my favorite drummer is Billy Cobham. My favorite guitar player… it’s tough: a cross up between Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen. [Laughs]
Frank Zappa did so many records…
Yeah, I got like 45 or 46 of his albums and I don’t have all. I saw him playing live four times and the musicianship it’s just infectious. Intuitive stuff too.
And do you have any special record you always like to listen?
Not really ‘cause I like a lot of stuff. I like anything that’s good: good country, jazz fusion, rock, good rock ‘n’ roll, and blues… I could sit and listen to the blues all day. But I pick up a lot of different stuff, not lock myself into one thing.
Mike Milligan (photo Sean Stevens)