Mike Zito took time out of his busy Six Strings Down tour to discuss his new concert schedule with Tommy Castro as well as his latest album Make Blues Not War. Zito was able to team up with Castro and Castro’s backing band The Painkiller for several weeks, a combo that’s causing excitement throughout the national blues scene. Six Strings Down is coming to the New England Blues Summit at the Cape Cod Resort And Conference Center next weekend, April 28.
“I’ve known Tommy for about 20 years, and I started opening up for him in St. Louis back in the 1990,” Zito said. “He was an early, and still is, an inspiration of mine to get out on the road and make my own records.” After touring together for many years, each one opening for the other or another act, Zito and Castro began a five year conversation about doing a tour in which they can both play together on stage in one act.
“This is probably from almost two years ago that this finally come together where we were able to get the dates and put a whole tour together,” Zito said. “He’s very busy, and I’m busy. We like each other and we have a lot in common. We both love playing blues. We like each other’s music. That was kind of the pre-cursor.”
Zito said that a rehearsal in Detroit two days before this interview went exceedingly well. “Everyone was prepared,” Zito said. “We had all the things we wanted to do. It couldn’t have gone better.” The pair’s first show in Detroit, which took place the night before this interview, exceeded their expectations.
“We’re playing a lot of music, about 18 songs,” Zito said. “It’s great for the show. We’re on stage all the time. We do about six songs of his and about six songs of mine. We have about six great cover songs so far. Of course, we have probably a list of 20 we’d like to play at some time. We’ve got some Derek And The Dominoes, some Allman Brothers, and some Savoy Brown.”
The songs on Zito’s latest album Make Blues Not War were a departure from the material he had recorded with his former band The Wheel. On this latest release, Zito gets more into back playing more enthusiastic guitar parts, being himself, and rediscovering the fire of his more youthful playing in the past.
“A lot of it was really different,” Zito. “Instead of writing songs from thinking about things I wanted to write about, this was literally picking up my guitar and writing a riff, like a kid. Going to my producer, Tom Hambridge, and going ‘Hey, what can we do with this?’ To me, the material is really fun to play and it’s got a lot of energy.”
Hambridge, who produced Make Blues Not War in Nashville, brought in his own band to support Zito; it’s the same band which records all of the Buddy Guy albums. “It was completely produced by Tom Hambridge,” Zito said.
Track “Highway Mama,” written by Hambridge, caught Zito’s ears with it’s 1970s Johnny Winter sound. “That’s the song he brought to me,” Zito said.
Zito has described himself as being a very sensitive person, sensitive in that he’s keenly aware of the environment around him. Most of the material her writes and most of the covers he chooses to perform and record has got to be about something he can relate to.
“It’s usually pretty personal,” Zito said. “Even if it’s a silly song. If it’s about ‘I think my wife is hot,’ it has to be something personal or I have a very difficult time singing it or performing it with any kind of conviction if I don’t have a way to tie into it, like this is what this means to me. I have to have some kind of connection to it.”
Working with producer Tom Hambridge was a dream come true for Zito. The producer is someone he wanted to work with ever since he heard Just Won’t Burn by Susan Tedeski in the 1990s. “That was the first time I was turned on to Tom Hambridge,” Zito said. “He wrote a lot of those songs. So I wanted to work with him for years. To finally make this record with him was fantastic. He really understands who I am and what I’m trying to do. There was no pulling teeth. We were on the same page.”
Zito is looking forward to next weekend’s New England Blues Summit. The northeast and the New England scene is one of the finest places in the country to go and play his kind of music, he says. “There’s a reason why so many of the national touring blues acts go to the northeast. There’s a big fan base there. People really like the music.” Zito attributes this to the number of hard working people who relate to the music.
“My dad was a union worker,” Zito said. “I come from working family. This is a working class music career. This is not a pop career. We’re not divas. We’ve got to go play 200 shows if you want to make a living. We’re out here doing it, and the music fits. I get excited every time we go to the northeast because I have a lot of friends there, and I always know it will be well received. People like my music there. They like Tommy’s music there. This is going to be one of the highlights of the tour.”
Growing up in St. Louis, Missouri in the 1970s and 1980s, Zito was exposed to guitarists like Eddie Van Halen as well as his parents’ Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin records. He knew all of the 1940s pop ballads then he heard Van Halen’s “Eruption.” From Van Halen he moved onto Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin. In high school, he turned onto Stevie Ray Vaughn and Johnny Winter which got him into the Allman Brothers. He explored some of the blues artists mentioned in the songwriting credits on rock albums. “I got to Muddy Waters through osmosis,” the guitarist said. “I love the older blues music today. It just wasn’t readily available in the 1970s to a white kid living in a white neighborhood in south St. Louis.”
Zito’s sound has grown and evolved considerably since his 1998 debut album Blue Room. Ten years later, he focused more on singing and songwriting, which came more naturally, as opposed to guitar playing, which he had to work on. “If you had a great song and you sang good, it’s a lot easier to play guitar,” Zito said. “As the years have gone on, I’ve learned that great songs go a lot further. Hopefully, the material has gotten better, my voice has gotten better, and my guitar playing has gotten better. I’ve learned to accompany my stronger attributes.”
Many blues fans know of Zito as a former member of the Royal Southern Brotherhood. He left that storied outfit after making great albums with that group, saying he learned more about music because there was so much variety he had to perform. “People were pulling apart a little, just wanting to do their own thing,” Zito said. “I left at the right time.”
After the Six String Down tour, Zito will take his own music on the road to promote Make Blues Not War. Festivals, clubs, and other venues in the United States and Europe will hear much of the Make Blues Not War album live. While Zito is grateful for his CD sales and a high amount of air play, he knows he has to take his music to the people in person.
“You’ve gotta go out and play this music,” he said. “We gotta go out and sell this idea. So that’s what we’re going to do. We’re gonna go out and play these songs everywhere we can all year long.”
Fans of Mike Zito and Tommy Castro can catch their Six Strings Down show at New England Blues Summit at the Cape Cod Resort And Conference Center in Hyannis, Massachusetts on Friday, April 28th.