With a rocking new album under his belt, Michael Monroe is taking his live show out on the road again.
I CAN’T help but feel nervous at the prospect of sitting in a room alone with Michael Monroe. Michael was a founding member and the front man of cult rock n’ roll band Hanoi Rocks, which influenced bands such as Guns n’ Roses and Mötley Crüe, and later continued a successful solo career where he played with stars such as Slash, Steven Van Zandt and Ronnie Wood. He is the biggest rock star in Finnish music.
I wonder whether he’ll be an arrogant star, or even bored and cynical with our questions. But Michael is completely the opposite: a true gentleman. Always with a huge smile on his face, he goes into detail with every question and transmits a huge passion for music and for what he does. We meet with him to talk about his latest album, Horns and Halos, and about life in Finland.
On the first single of Horns and Halos, Ballad of the Lower East Side, you sing about your memories of the New York where you lived in the ‘80s and‘90s. What surprised you most about the city when you moved there?
In New York I lived in Manhattan East 3rd Street between First and Second Avenue, and it was one of the noisiest places in New York, but surprisingly also the safest, all because it was the Hells Angels [motorcycle club] block. They had a 24-hour watch in the street and it was actually one of the few streets where parents didn’t have to watch over their children every second and the kids could play in the streets freely because the Hells Angels were watching. I was on their good side and even played at their block party. They blocked the street for 2 days and planted a stage in the middle. It was a really cool party.
How did you manage to be on the good side of the Hells Angels?
Well, for example my best friend in New York was Little Steven [Bruce Springsteen’s guitar player]. I went to one of Steven’s concerts where Bruce [Springsteen] did a duet with him. When I was on my way out of the club, two of the Hells Angels shouted at me “Hey Mike! Come over here! Have a drink with us.” One of them was the Vice president of the Hells Angels, Teddy, a very big guy, and he told me they were there waiting to see Bruce come out. When Bruce left the club, I called him and introduced him to Teddy and his friend. Bruce is such a nice guy that he spent an hour talking with them. So you can imagine that after that they were like, “Alright, Mike! Anything you want, just stick your head out of the window and give us a shout.”
In that song you also sing about how things have changed in New York. Have things changed as much in Helsinki?
Finland in the late ‘70s was crazy. They were intolerant and narrow-minded people. There was this passion for James Dean in Finland and every kid looked like they’d been taken out from Happy Days [American television sitcom]. They still thought America was that even though they were 20 years late. It was a weird moment and they would beat up anyone who had long hair or looked different, people even died! Those were heavy moments.
For Hanoi Rocks our first goal was to get the hell out of Finland. I moved to Stockholm in 1979 because they were more tolerant there. With Hanoi Rocks, one of the biggest accomplishments we made was that we forced people to be a little bit more open-minded and learn to laugh at themselves a little bit more.
How was it to move back to Finland after 10 years living in New York?
What happened to me is that I lived in New York for so long that I got used to that life; I got used to New York’s energy, an electric energy that keeps you on the edge and going all the time. But it got to a point where things turned around and New York was taking more from me than what it was giving, so I decided to move back to Finland.
I was tempted to have my house in the countryside, to live breathing fresh air, so I moved to my grandmother’s cottage. It was a cultural shock after living 10 years in New York to go and live in the countryside. For me, adjusting to life there was hard, but I learned to appreciate nature and in the end I loved it.
What surprised me about Finland is that artists might play two concerts in the same day: one for underage in the afternoon and one for adults in the evening. How are those underage concerts? Do kids go crazier than adults?
I love those gigs. It’s obvious that kids don’t drink alcohol... or maybe some do before the concert... but you can feel they’re clearer in their heads and they have a natural energy, they have that twinkle in their eye, pure excitement. The energy is completely different. Their sincere joy and excitement for the event just comes over you. The sound of the crowd is different, as well as the vibe. The adult gigs are still a great crowd but they are different. They serve alcohol and you might even see people passing out.
Another good thing about underage concerts is that kids that age won’t normally get in to a club like Tavastia, so it’s an opportunity for them to get into the rock club in Finland.
I think age limits are silly. Just because adults can’t handle their alcohol problems, kids have to suffer and not get to see the bands they like. I always want to have concerts for kids. I believe it is important and I enjoy it a lot.
Sadly, nowadays you hear people say things like “we shouldn’t pay for music because music is just a marketing tool to sell concerts,” what is your opinion on that?
A friend of yours said that?
So he thinks this is not a proper job? That this is not hard work? Well, I have news for your friend: try and do what I do on stage for five minutes, I dare you.
I take my music very seriously. Making an album is a tedious and stressful process and it takes a long time to actually get to the moment where you’re singing a song. Especially lyrics keep changing and you keep trying different things up to the moment you record it. I stay up nights thinking about lyrics, going for every word and every little thing. It’s not necessarily fun all the time. Making an album is a long process and it can be stressful because you’re going to have to live with that record for the rest of your life.
After the success of your previous album Sensory Overdrive, what was the approach on this new album?
Sensory Overdrive got a great reception around the world. Classic Rock Magazine readers voted it “Best Album of the Year 2011”, it went straight to number one in Finland and it won the EMMA (Finnish Music Award) for “Rock Album of the Year 2011”. I always get asked if we feel a lot of pressure because of this. We thought there was no point trying to do the same album twice, we moved on, decided to write some music and see where it went. Eventually cool stuff started to come out and the album started taking shape.
Do you remember when you actually started writing material for Horns and Halos and how it came along?
The thing with our band is that everyone lives around the world. Sami Yaffa [bass] lives in New York, Steve Conte [guitar] is a New York guy but lives in Amsterdam, Karl Rockfist [drums] used to live in Los Angeles but moved to Sweden and Dregen [guitar] lives in Stockholm. What we did is, whenever we got together for a show or tour we always booked a few extra days before to work on songs. That it is why Horns and Halos was recorded here and there. Before our South American tour we did four days in Steve’s rehearsal studio in New York and at the end of the tour we stayed some days in Los Angeles and laid down some demos. That’s how it started to come together.
One of my personal favourites on the album is Soul Surrender. How did you come out with that great reggae break in the verse?
It is one of my favourites too! We were in New York doing a songwriting session and Rockfist couldn’t make it for the first couple of days so I stepped in and played drums. Sami had that riff [he plays drums with his legs as he sings the Soul Surrender opening riff] and I was drumming along, but because I hadn’t played drums for a while I started to get tired and started to play slowly, with a reggae vibe, and we thought, “What the hell! Why not?” So it was actually my tiredness that caused that freaky idea that all of a sudden the song would go into a reggae beat.
You’ve played 15 editions of Ruisrock either with Hanoi Rocks or Michael Monroe. What does Ruisrock mean to you?
It is a special festival. It is the first and oldest rock festival in Finland and has always been the festival. Ruisrock just has a great environment, especially the stage near the sea [Ranta Lava]. It is such a special place. I love it.
I think it was Aerosmith who were playing on that stage and saw the big Viking Line boat coming and stopped in a middle of a song and said, “Wait a minute...that boat is coming at us!” For me it’s a special place, especially now that I live in Turku. During my concerts, when I climb up the lighting rig, I can almost see my house.
To finish, what Finnish-speaking artist/band would you recommend our readers?
David Lindholm is a person to me that in Finland is holy. If you want to listen to some funny usage of the Finnish language check out his 1975 album named Fandjango. Dave used to live in Chicago and wrote in English but when he came back to Finland the record company told him, “You have to write lyrics in Finnish.” His lyrics are easy to translate to English because it feels like if they were originally written in English. I covered one of his songs called Telephone Bill’s All Mine (Puhelinlasku on mun). It was cool. Dave also played a lead solo in my album Whatcha Want. Also you should check out Apulanta and Jenni Vartiainen.
...And English speaking?
Hurriganes’ album Roadrunner is a must. And Nuclear Nightclub by Wigwam should also be checked out.
Horns and Halos is out now.
Michael Monroe on tour
Photos: Ville Akseli Juurikkala