By: Jim Villanueva
From the glamorous life of being a lauded young singer and songwriter to the life in the gutter in which he eventually ended up as a drug addict and alcoholic, Michael McDermott, songwriter and frontman of The Westies, has experienced plenty of personal and professional triumph and tragedy. His life story is a movie waiting to be made, but while waiting for Hollywood to come calling, this stellar storyteller has served up a brilliant 10-song soundscape, West Side Stories, worthy of comparison to some of the finest work by some of the premiere songwriters of all time.
In late January I played a track called “Hell’s Kitchen” off West Side Stories on my weekly Current Classics podcast and I said then that even though we were only less than a month into the New Year I knew The Westies’ album would be one of my top 10 favorites of 2015. The record is sonically restrained while poetically powerful and it features a set of stories Bruce Springsteen wishes he’d told first. Recently I had the immense pleasure of speaking with McDermott, who called me from his car while driving around his hometown of Chicago. I must say, of the hundreds and hundreds of interviews I’ve done, I had never spoken to someone while they were driving, so that was a first for me. Not only did our conversation turn out to be a personal milestone, it ended up being a professional highpoint as well. Michael McDermott is as talented a musician as he is truthful about the demons that once haunted him and the damsel that saved him from distress.
I want to begin our conversation on a very upbeat note. Did you have an early aha moment in which you knew music was going to play as important a role in your life as it obviously has?
Well there were a few, actually. The two that come to mind immediately were hearing – like on a cassette – “All Along the Watchtower,” [Bob] Dylan’s version. What I love about music is it transports you and so [listening to] “All Along the Watchtower,” I was in that field with the horses and I just saw it all. That was one moment. And then the other moment would be when I was in Michigan and a friend of mine played the song “The River” by [Bruce] Springsteen. And that was another one of those things, those moments that really I’ll just never forget.
Those are a couple of fairly decent songwriters that you brought up. And I’m talking to another one right now. So, your current band is called The Westies and before I started recording our conversation you’d mentioned that you guys just finished recording your second album. Well I’m obsessed with this one but gosh I gotta pick up on that. Tell me a little bit about what you guys laid down.
Yeah, you ain’t seen nothing’ yet. We did it with the same producer [Lex Price] down in Nashville with a couple of the same guys. We had Will Kimbrough (Steve Earle, The Jayhawks, Mark Knopfler, John Prine, Rosanne Cash) on guitar and anything with strings on it. But yeah, it’s really kind of like the second chapter of the Story of The Westies, like where do they go from here. West Side Stories is kind of the introduction and the second one takes it a little further down the road. I think they’re a little more grown up and seeing things for the way they are rather than the way they wanted them to be.
Well you’ve set yourself a very high bar. I should explain that the soundscapes on West Side Stories are inspired by the 60s/70s era New York City neighborhood Hell’s Kitchen Irish gang known as The Westies. What drew you to their story?
I was living in New York in the 90s; I started getting myself into some trouble here in Chicago so my friends took me to New York. I was blindsided, so I was suddenly a New Yorker because they thought I was gonna kill myself or someone here. But in retrospect I say now never take an idiot to an idiot’s playground like Manhattan because they took me there and I just got into way more trouble. So there were some run-ins with some connected guys and I read this book called The Westies and I was fascinated with it and I went to some of those old stomping grounds and I remember I went into this bar on 10th Avenue, the 596 Club, which used to belong to Jimmy Coonan who was the main Westie and was incarcerated at the time, and asked the waitress, ‘Hey, is this Jimmy Coonan’s old place?’ She brings us our drinks and says to me, ‘Terry at the bar wants to talk to you.’ So I go over and the guy says, ‘Why you asking about Jimmy?’ I told him I’d just read this book The Westies and a smile and sigh of relief came over his face before he said to me, ‘I get guys coming in here every week trying to take over Jimmy’s action and trying to strong arm me.’ And I said, ‘Do I look like a strong-arm guy? (laughs) That’s the greatest compliment in my life!’ (laughs) So I just got fascinated by the criminal element of Manhattan, and I always had like a crime song here and there on a record, so when it came time to come up with a name for this band I thought, ah The Westies.
That’s a great story and great background that brings us right up to date. You’ve said: “I write what I know and what I know is much of the time, ugly.” How do you navigate the tightrope when addressing ugly subject matter in such beautifully subtle songs that are on the record?
Well, thank you first of all. A lot of it had to do with my wife [and Westies bandmate, Heather Horton]. I would write these songs and she would hear them in the house and then I would go and record them and they were much more harsh and raw. And she would say, ’You know I think your problem is this; I love the way you sit on the bed and play these songs when no one’s in the room, and then when you present them there are all these big drums and guitars.’ So she challenged me to just be simple with it. So it’s the old thing about give people too much time in the studio and just bad things happen. You know it’s kinda like the bar thing; nothing good happens after 3am.
I’m on record as saying I believe West Side Stories will be one of my top 10 favorite albums of the year and that it’s filled with stories Springsteen wishes he’d told first. Did you wear early comparisons to Bruce and others as a badge of honor, or were they a pain in the ass?
Well I think in retrospect it’s flattering but when that first record came out I hated it because, you know, there was a decent age difference and we lived in different parts of the country. Yeah he’s a great writer but I hated it. But you know now I kind of let my Bruce flag fly. I hid it for a while, like I would always be like, yeah f**k Bruce but you know there was no reason for that. I was just young and petulant and I didn’t want to be compared because, I don’t know, it rubbed me the wrong way for a long time, but I’m too old to worry about that now.
Let’s talk about some of the songs on West Side Stories. Let me quote a lyrics: “Sometimes you need the darkness in order to ever see the light.” Tell me a little bit about “Bars” – the song, by the way, not actual bars.
That song seems to me like one of the songs that is at the heart of the record. It’s a simple line and I think that even when I wrote it I thought that seemed a little too simple, but really it’s the line that most people refer to. You know I was a drug addict and alcoholic – January 12 I was a year clean and sober – and I’ve spent so much time in bars I can’t even tell you; it’s disgusting. The first stanza is kind of about trying to score down in Texas, but anyway, it’s just little vignettes about my travels all over the place. I look back and I always wanted the gutter, Jim, and I found it and I think when I found it I embraced it. I didn’t go woe is me; I liked it down there and for whatever my reasons are I felt I deserved it. And it’s weird to get out that place. I’m so used to thinking I don’t deserve anything and it’s been a difficult transition, certainly into a sober life. But yeah, that song is really at the heart of it; it’s just a very simple thing like I needed to go there and I had to dig a hole to China to get out the other end. Most people don’t go down to go up but I did. I had to go down to get around it.
So, today, Michael, have you kind of figured out why you need the gutter; searched for the gutter?
I don’t really know. Not to be Dr. Phil but a lot of it goes back to early childhood and there were some things that went on that kind of instilled shame in you and you carry that around and somehow it snowballed on me. But it’s something I’ll live with till the day I die, but that’s okay.
Luckily you have a great outlet in music for working these things out. The tune “Say It…” says so much about how far you’ve traveled in your personal and professional journey. Talk about the song and the very special person with whom you share vocals.
Well, it’s my wife. A funny thing happened in 2008 or 2009; I went over to Italy to open for a singer and I was at the venue really early and there were all these people standing around – and I was pretty drunk at the time – and all these people were there early to see me! I didn’t know I had this really big career in Italy. And just the pace of life, the passion for food and music and art and love; it literally changed my life. I came back and Heather Horton, the girl that had been in my band for five years; I came back and I was filled with all kinds of positivity and love and desire and she’d been there the whole time and I didn’t even know. Fortunately, it wasn’t too late and everything changed after that. So then we get married, we have a beautiful baby girl but I was still drinking hard and that song literally was written in about 10 minutes when I was summoned to the couch because I was not welcome in the bedroom and I wrote it all there in a matter of minutes.
Earlier, I brought up the fact that you’d said in the past that you write about what you know, much of which is ugly. The song “Fallen” is far from ugly. How did this gorgeous tune take shape?
I wrote that with Heather. She was living in Nashville and I went down to see her. I wrote this thing and left it on the table and I went back home to Chicago. A few days later she told me she’d taken that thing and added some stuff, added a verse and changed some stuff around and she sent it to me and I liked it okay; I didn’t love it. We went in the studio and something happened where it became this really amazing piece of work and I give her all the credit for that.
Let me quote another lyric: “I don’t even think Jesus Christ knows the piss poor shape I’ve been in.” That one comes off the song “Still…” What shape are you in today, Michael?
I’m doing okay. Obviously there are lots of forces still at work. Like anybody, there’s a lot of self-doubt and a lot of depression. I mean, just look around, it’s hard not to be depressed, but I’m doing a lot better than I was. I was thinking this morning that there seems like a lot of suicides lately and it just f**kin freaks me out. Even Robin Williams; I was very upset by that. I think what it was is that I spent so long – not necessarily trying to kill myself – but I didn’t care at all whether I lived. And now I do want to live; I’m getting goose bumps saying it. It gets better – it really does. I’ve been there, I’ve been in the gutter, as dark as it gets, but it gets better and it upsets me so much when people make that leap.
Looking back, do you think the personal hardships you went through right after signing a record deal at such an early age were a necessary evil on the road to making you a much better artist?
The correct answer would be no, but part of me thinks that it does. I mean that’s a cowardly thing to say, I think, but for me it did. I think I had to really disassemble myself somehow; I don’t know what I thought I was missing, but maybe not. I don’t know, but I kind of wouldn’t trade it because it got me here. Had I not gotten that dark I wouldn’t notice the colors that exist today.
Final question for you, Michael: what were your expectations of success when you first got into the business, and how do you define success now?
Wow, that’s a huge paradigm shift. I had to drastically recalibrate my definition of success – drastically. When I first came out it was all, I was gonna be it, and then I thought, geez that wasn’t that hard. But then it’s like they say about sports; getting in the league isn’t the hard part, it’s staying in the league. Right now, Jim, honestly, my ideas of success are such that, if I could just keep doing it I’m a success. Where before, I felt entitled, I was a spoiled brat, I was tended to and all my needs were met and then I became an a**hole. And I still have some of those traits because I was very young, it was instilled early how you were the golden child. So yeah, but I’ve come a long way in terms of recalibrating. When I go to Green Bay and play to a room full of people that might only reach a hundred, that’s a great night for me.
Well Michael, thanks again for the time. The Westies is the band and West Side Stories – and I’m gonna say it again and shout it from the rooftops – is a brilliant record. When I prep for these conversations I’ll often put a star next to the songs that pop out for me and ones that I want to discuss and I started to do that with this album but I ended up starring everything.
Well Jim, everybody’s time is valuable and I thank you so much for giving me yours. I appreciate it.
My pleasure, Listen, I can’t wait to hear what comes up next but let’s hold on to this record for a while because there’s a lot of great stuff that I certainly want to share in any way that I can.
Thank you, Jim. And I’m gonna make sure you’re one of the first that gets the new one way before it comes out. I will remember you.
I would love that; I’m looking forward to it. Drive safe. We will speak again, hopefully face-to-face.
I’d love to say I’ll buy you a beer, but uh, I’ll buy you one and I’ll drink something different.
**To hear audio of a portion of my conversation with Michael and the song “Bars” off West Side Stories, check out Episode 17 of my weekly Current Classics podcast. Listen HERE.