SILENCING THE SIRENS: MICHAEL MCDERMOTT STARES INTO THE DARK, SEES THE LIGHT ON THE WESTIES’ SIX ON THE OUT
BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
Staring at three to six years behind bars was the wakeup call Michael McDermott needed to turn his then drug and drink ravaged life around. For good? That remains to be seen. But what is clearly heard on the Chicago born and bred singer-songwriter’s sometimes disturbingly dark, profoundly personal latest set of songs is a sonic sojourn back to a time when McDermott’s life – let alone career – was hanging in the balance. “It was the most terrifying time of my life,” McDermott confesses. “I was thinking, f**kin’ three to six years? It was just terrifying.”
Those tumultuous times served as the script for the film noir-like soundscape of Six On the Out, McDermott’s second collection of hauntingly honest stories recorded with his band The Westies, featuring his wife and bandmate Heather Horton, whose contribution to McDermott’s considerable art and increasingly content heart is immeasurable. “She’s a visionary, really,” McDermott is quick to point out. “The Westies thing was really her idea. She’s just amazing.” The couple’s personal and professional relationship can be summarized with a verse in the song “Like You Used To” in which Horton uses a whispery vocal to send a deafeningly powerful message: “Lately babe, I’ve been thinking, maybe if you stopped your drinking/maybe our passion would burn a fiery blue/Some things got broke, some got shattered, you were all that ever mattered, yet somehow you never knew.”
Currently two years into his recovery, McDermott knows he has much to live for, starting with his wife and daughter. The songs on Six On the Out are a peek into his cloudy past, sung by a guy who now has his gaze fixed on a bright future. That said, the musician, husband, father and recovering multiple substance abuser continues to take things one day at a time. Evidence of that lies in the last line found on the final song of the album, the eerie “Sirens,” in which he cautions: “I hear sirens, they never seem to go away.”
Jim, how are you? I’ve been pretty good. As you know, my dad just died, and today was his birthday. He didn’t quite make it. But, yeah, everything’s fine. They can’t keep me down, Jim (laughs).
Well, good to talk to you again. Let’s get talking about this new set of songs. The stark soundscape of Six On the Out – especially the line, “I’m tired of being pushed around, I can’t seem to break free/If I had a gun, I might point it back on me,” from the opening track “If I Had a Gun,” – reminded me of the PBS series American Experience gritty documentary The Mine Wars, which was set in the (coal mines) of Southern West Virginia (at the dawn of the 20th century). To me, this song could just as easily be set in Hell’s Kitchen (in New York City) or the hills of West Virginia. Would you agree?
Yeah, I would. That line was kinda, well it was toward the end of my drinking days, and I was really, really at the end of my rope. I think that line was almost, you know, like specifically of my threats of killing myself, and you’ll miss me when I’m gone and all of that kind of high f**kin’ melodrama (laughs). But yeah, it was real. So since in the time of the two years now I’ve got under my belt of being clean and sober, I think a lot of stuff has come back to me. And my joke is that it’s like patio furniture you put in the shed for the winter, and then you forget it’s there. And that’s kind of how my brain was working for most of the 90s (laughs) and early 2000s, until 2014. Anyway, so a lot of stuff has been coming back to me, and a lot of it is (about) when I was arrested and I was looking at real jail time. I didn’t know where to go with The Westies, as an idea, (following 2015’s West Side Stories). The record ended with “Still ain’t over you yet” (from the song “Still…”) and it kind of goes back to a love relationship, and what went wrong, and it was kind of a bleak ending. So then I was like, “where do they go from here?” Thinking about what would these characters do, I kinda thought, well s**t man I was looking at three to six years myself, and it could have been any one of these characters. So I was kinda drifting between places at the time. I was staying a lot at my parents’ house…and coming back there I felt like I was such a f**kin’ loser; I couldn’t believe it had all gone so south on me. So that suddenly was like a place for me to work off of – a stake in the ground where I could say I can build around this; this idea of the transition back into society, and really how difficult it is. You would think that if you were facing three to six years in prison for possession that would straighten a guy out, but it didn’t. I was probably clean for, I don’t know, a week (laughs)! I was lucky enough to have a family that cared about me, but god damn if you didn’t, like, what are you looking at? What are your prospects? Musically, the sonic scape that was created, I have to give total credit to (producers, multi-instrumentalists) Lex Price and Will Kimbrough. I wanted this record to be a little tougher – not necessarily darker – but the first time I heard the record and it was over, I was like, f**k man, it was even dark for me! It was pretty f**kin’ bleak stuff (laughs)!
I wanna make one more reference and connection to this documentary, The Mine Wars. By any chance do you know who Mother Jones is?
I do not.
I didn’t either until they referenced her in this documentary in which she played a big role. She was Irish born, in her 60s, a real rebel rouser in that she went around the country trying to get people to unionize. She was sort of a catalyst of this war, where the miners literally took up arms. They said it was the largest armed uprising since the Civil War. It’s a very fascinating story…
Yeah, it is.
That said, would you consider yourself a Father Jones-type songwriter, in that the songs that you sing generally speak to the 99 percent?
Well, yeah it’s certainly not intentional, but I think if anything, I’ve gotten as a reward for sobriety – which hasn’t been a lot of fun – is that I’m not so ego driven. As fictionalized as this world is that I’ve created, I certainly know a lot about this. There was always a lot of tension growing up and not knowing whether you were gonna be on the street because we were almost evicted several times. So anyway, there’s no intentional thing, but I just write about what I know, really.
Just last week I was walking around a record store – as I do often – and I found a copy of (McDermott’s 2012 album) Hit Me Back – in the folk section (laughs)…
(Laughs)…which kind of took me aback! I brought it home and I was listening to the song “The Silent Will Soon Be Singing” and these lines, “This world has all gone mad, it’s funny and it’s sad.” “Oppression hides in fear, anger is always near.” “In times like these are like the times of ancient Rome.” This might be a different way of asking the same question, but do you sing for the silent?
Well, I’m so flattered that you even think of that. I’m writing a song, actually – I was working on it right before I had to call you – and the chorus is “I’m so tired of singing all these sad songs.” And it’s kind of how I feel, but what is the point if you’re not gonna say something. People go, “Why don’t you write happy songs?” I don’t know. Happy songs never really affected me. Don’t we all love the sad songs in some way because they’re real and they move you in a way? Hey, I love Van Halen, but it doesn’t move me. You know it’s hard to walk down the street and not want to cry! That’s the simplest way I can say it, right (laughs)? It’s so f**kin’ sad everywhere! It’s so f**kin’ sad, but like I’m tired of seeing something like the f**kin’ guy on the side of the road! Oh my god! Jim, everywhere you look it’s f**kin’ wildly depressing. Those voices in all those f**kin’ places, those halfway houses, those people that live there and the loneliness there, and going into the old folk’s homes: Heather makes me go and sing there and it’s f**kin’ brutal, dude. It’s depressing! And I almost wish that if you’re gonna be in a place like that, I wish you insanity, because how else can you deal with living in an environment like that. It’s the ones that know how sad it is and how desperate, and they know they have no one. My dad was in the hospital, and walking by all those rooms, and they have no visitors, day after day after day. I’m sorry, I’m ranting, but it’s all really, really sad.
Well, I, on behalf of so many, thank you for singing for the silent, because I think you do.
Oh, thank you, man. That’s the most amazing thing anyone’s ever said to me.
Okay, let’s get deeper into this record. In our previous conversation about (2015’s) West Side Stories, which as you know I’m just obsessed with, you warned me then that I hadn’t heard anything yet! Well I’m happy to report you were right! Let me ask you about “Parole.” Is the lead character in that song based on any one particular person, or an amalgamation?
(Laughs) Me! It was about going back to Paddy B’s (pub) in Orland Park (South side of Chicago), which was the place I went to after I got out of jail and was awaiting trial, and all that. It was the most terrifying time in my life cuz I was thinking, “F**kin’ three to six years? Seriously!” It was just terrifying. I hardly slept. And then the nightmares; oh my god, the nightmares! And my lawyer wasn’t very forthcoming – and he wasn’t very optimistic, either. I mean I was caught with a lot of stuff. So it was really just that time. And LaGrange Road really is in Orland Park, and the bar is called McDivot’s and Paddy B’s is a real place. Around that time there was a high school reunion that I went to and I ended up going to the party afterwards and there was a lot of coke there and I knew I couldn’t cuz I was being tested. So it was kinda loosely based on a night back then.
I was 99 percent certain that was the case. Now I was really struck by, and stuck on, this line: “Don’t you wish you could start all over again, it seems to me that most times the devil always wins.” If that’s true, I’d say you beat the odds, my friend…
Yeah, yeah, yeah!
…thanks in no small measure to your wife and bandmate Heather and your daughter, Willie.
Absolutely! I was just beginning to be an embarrassment, really, and sometimes vanity is a good motivator. To know that you’re an embarrassment in front of your daughter, just the perception of that: that was the end! That was my last day; I remember it well. I hope it was my last day, as we say in recovery. I remember the date. I mean, if it wasn’t for them – and had I known how hard the first year would have been, I wouldn’t have done it, either. I kind of thought like, “Oh, what have you got to lose, thing could get better.” But they didn’t, and it was brutal. But then after the first year things started feeling different, and now they’re great. And I had planned my relapse – I really did – but then it was like, I don’t know, man, two years is a long time, and to start at zero again, so I didn’t do it. And I don’t wanna now.
I’m glad you didn’t.
Yeah, me too.
Let’s talk about Heather a little bit more, and specifically how seamless your voices sound together. Brag a bit here – tell the people why Heather Horton is such an amazing singer and musician.
Well, she’s a visionary, really. The Westies thing was really her idea; I gotta give her credit. She comes from a very different musical world. I love big rock records, and I love making them. But she would hear me play a song around the kitchen, then I’d go demo it up and I would put the guitars and drums on it, and she would be like, “What the f**k are you doing? It was a perfectly good song with you and an acoustic guitar.” Anything where I start belting it out, well she’s immediately out! So she was responsible for The Westies. She was like, “Let the songs speak. Stop yelling. Stop singing like a used car salesman. Just tell the story.”
(Laughs) Sounds like a wife (laughs).
(Laughs) Jim, we were arguing like 20 minutes ago about what key this new sad song should be in. It was like, “You’re singing too high,” and I’m like, “I’m not singing too high!” (Laughs) So, yeah, she’s amazing. And what a singer! She really makes everything sound so much better. And so that’s The Westies, really. If there’s no Heather Horton, there’s no Westies.
I was going to bring up “Like You Used To”
We were making the record, and we had our batch of songs, and then Lex was like, “We gotta give Heather a song. What do ya got?” So I was going through my files of all these songs and I came across that one. And literally, I’m pretty sure that’s the first take. She just sang it, and we were all looking at each other and going, “Okay, that was great.”
I was listening to it and in my head I was thinking this is a love song about a relationship that’s hanging off a cliff by its fingertips…
Yep! Yeah, because somedays you hope they love you, and then other days you’re not even sure they like you.
Let’s continue about family. I wanna ask you about yours. There are so many great lines on this album, but one that I want to quote is from “The Gang’s All Here:” “It’s not the trouble, it’s surviving the struggle/that gives our lives meaning and worth.” I think this track is the most Irish (song) on the record. Is that safe to say?
Well, I think a huge part, really. Being raised in an Irish Catholic family, you never forgot about my folks being Southside Chicago. There was real animus about Protestants and Catholics. We were all very learned about the troubles, and all that. So yeah, it played a huge part. My folks always had the Irish music going on, though I was never very interested in it, quite frankly, but it was certainly seeped in. But (now) I love those songs.
Sonically, “Santa Fe” seems like it could be a stepson of sorts of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.”
(Laughs) I love The Cure. That was one that was kind of on the fence as to whether it was gonna make the record, but I thought the record needed something that pumped away, and I like the story, it’s still in step with the kind of homicidal nature of the album (laughs). So yeah, I’m glad we left it on there. But yeah, I love all that stuff.
On that note, what band or singer would you think that your longtime fans would be surprised to know that you like?
I’m so bad at these questions. Like, what’s on my iPod that would be like, oh man! Most of the stuff is very much exactly what you’d think: Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, U2, The Waterboys, but I’m trying to think of what’s the oddball stuff. I mean, quite frankly, my daughter is into One Direction now – I mean they’re not even that bad, actually (laughs). They got some good stuff (laughs) and I find myself singing along and going, “What the hell” (laughs).
(Laughs) There’s that one One Direction song, don’t they do “Story of My Life”…
(Laughs) Yeah! Yeah! That’s a great song (laughs)!
(Laughs) That’s a great song (laughs)…
That’s a great song! I’m so glad we agree. I mean, they don’t write these songs – obviously outside songwriters write them, but they’re good songs.
You mentioned U2 and I think “Once Upon a Time” could be in their canon of classic songs.
Yeah, Daniel Lanois (U2, Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, Neil Young) was a guy I got a chance to hang out with, and I loved his first record Acadie (1989) and For the Beauty of Wynona (1993) are two of my favorite albums of all time. I was dating Lisa Germano, who used to play with (John) Mellencamp, and she worked with Malcolm Burn (Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, Patti Smith, Midnight Oil) at Daniel’s studio down in New Orleans. We got to go over there and I was just freaked out that, this guy did (U2’s) The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby and Peter Gabriel’s So and Us, and I was just out of my mind! We hung out for like three days and I think he knew that I knew so much about his solo work that he was very charmed by that. So he really pulled me in and he was like, “Michael, can I play you something,” and I was like, “yeah” (laughs). I was trying to be cool, but I was like, “Holy f**kin’ s**t (laughs)! So yeah, that (“Once Upon a Time”) is a very Lanoisy kind of thing.
My best friend, best man at my wedding, Mark: hands down, Lanois is his all-time favorite producer.
Yeah, he’s amazing. Everything he touches does sound so much like Daniel Lanois. Whatever he does is great.
We’ll wrap up with a couple of quick things. In “This I Know” you sing, “I spent last night in the gutter, it strangely felt like home.” Where does home feel like today?
Well, boy isn’t that the eternal question, I guess, really: the search for home. Home, ideally, is a place of peace and a “moving feast,” to quote Hemmingway. Home is here in Willow Springs – which I’m gonna send you my new record which is titled Willow Springs. But yeah, it would be here. It’s wherever the two girls (wife and daughter) on the other side of this wall are. It’s wherever they are.
No, no. Quick story: so I wrote this song, and you know, songs just happen and they appear and they’re there and whatever. Heather was very uneasy about the song. She was like, “Yeah, it’s great. I’m just very uncomfortable, like you’re planning our demise,” because (in the song) the wife and daughter die. This summer, Heather’s going to the pool with Willie and a kid was texting, going about 55 miles an hour, hits them, flips their car, it tumbles and went across traffic in between two light posts. The cops on the scene said it was a miracle. The phone rings, I answered and she was like, “We’re okay,” and I was like, “What happened?” She said she thought she was dead, for sure. And in her hysteria, she said to the cop, “My husband, he’s a songwriter, he wrote this song about this exact thing, and now I feel so relieved that we’re okay.” So we kind of exorcised that thing, but it was kind of spooky that it happened, I don’t know, like three months after I wrote it. I swear I had nothing to do with it. But yeah, it’s a bleak ending, but I don’t know where else you put a song like that on a record except at the very end.
Wow, well, congratulations again, Michael. This is another great album.
Ah, thanks, Jim.
Great to talk to you, as always. Tell Heather I said hello.
Well she already said to say hi to you, too. Love you, man. Thanks so much.