Mike Zito is on a roll. In 2010, his song “Pearl River,” co-written with friend Cyril Neville, earned a Blues Music Award for Song of The Year. In 2011, he co-founded Royal Southern Brotherhood with Devon Allman and Cyril Neville. In 2012, RSB issued their debut album to public and critical acclaim, and have since developed a rabid following. As a solo artist, Zito has just released Gone To Texas, which features his best solo work to date.
Mike Zito strives for truth in his songwriting, his playing, and as a team member, helping the group realize their musical vision. He wants genuine quality in everything he does. Self serving methods and practices don’t work for him. It’s all about the the song, the group, and the music. He never gives less than 100% to anything he is a part of. American Blues Scene recently spoke with Zito during his solo tour. In a wide ranging discussion, he spoke about the struggles of addiction, producing his own records, working as a member of RSB and in his own band concurrently, and the “ins and outs” of truth in songwriting.
We asked Zito what he took back to Mike Zito and The Wheel that he had learned from working with RSB. “Maybe some confidence about what I’m doing. You know, when you get thrown into a mix, it’s like ‘OK, make music’ and everyone’s coming from different places. Like, they’re doing things in different ways. You know, the group has to get together. When you’re thrown into a mix like that, you can’t only think about the one person, because now these other people are there. Really, you have to make it work as a group.
“I can see when the band comes together to work as a band. It alternately outweighs the one guy being really good. So I definitely come back with ‘I’m putting my own band together.’ I’ve had bands, but as I’m doing the new record, I’m thinking ‘I’m bringing in my own band. I’m picking the guys I want to play with.’ I can see how strong it is when you have the right people around you; when you work as a group. How much… it really makes a difference.”
Zito has been quite busy lately performing with his band, The Wheel, and RSB. Has this made him better at what he does, and if so, in what ways? “With the Brotherhood, I’m writing songs, I’m doing what I do, [but] not as much of it because there’s three singers, so I don’t sing all night long. There’s three or four songwriters, so I don’t have to write all the songs, but I do play guitar the whole time.
“So in the Brotherhood I really take on the roll of guitarist. More even than I do in my band where I’m the only guitarist. In my band I’m playing guitar, but more to accompany myself and play in the groove, and play songs. In the Brotherhood, I’m accompanying someone else a lot of times. So I’m getting to be in more of a guitar player role with the Brotherhood. Which I used to do that all the time. So it’s been kind of fun. I’ve come back around to the guitar more, in a guitarist’s viewpoint, working on different techniques, different styles and just coming back to the guitar in a whole other way.
“And then when I come back to my group, now I’m singing. So I’m really focused on the singing and the songs. I don’t get to do that in the other band. It’s very enjoyable when I play in my band. I can sing all night; I love to sing.”
So has all the switching roles from the RSB to The Wheel and back again made Zito better at both roles? “Absolutely. Last week I had a gig; I flew out to Nashville and played with the Brotherhood. I flew out the next morning and caught right back up with my band. So it was like, back to back gigs with different bands. It’s great. It keeps me on my toes.”
“I was doing my own bands, making my own records. We were opening for these acts; Walter Trout, Tab Benoit, Jimmy Thackery… People that were out there doing, and I was like, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ That’s where I met Tab and we, you know; he was always very generous, very nice,” Zito says of long-time friend, Tab Benoit. “I really liked his style. Over the years he’d let me play with him when I’d open up for him. He’d bring me up and let me sit in with him.”
“In 2003 I moved down south, southeast Texas, and I opened up for [Tab] in Beaumont, Texas and he was like, ‘What are you doing down here?’ He told me he owned a club in Houma, Louisiana, and I should come work at his club. So I started playing his club pretty regular. He introduced me to his manager, who is now my manager, and the brotherhood’s manager. So over all these years, he’s definitely given me a hard time along the way, but he loves me.
“He’s done a lot for me. He put me in front of a lot of guys. He introduced me to all the right people. He’s done a lot for me and my career, and he didn’t have to. At all. I always looked up to him. He’s really worked hard for what he has. He didn’t get any of this free; he went out and worked really hard for it. He’s just done so much to help me in my career. Still does. I have the utmost respect for him.”
As time has passed, Zito and Cyril Neville have come together as an accomplished songwriting team. Along the way, they have developed a deep and strong friendship. “We’re very close. We got very close, very quick. We have a lot in common, which seems strange in some ways. Our family backgrounds; the way we were raised. All the guys in the Brotherhood, it’s a fun band and I love all the guys, but Cyril and I are the closest. I don’t know; there’s just something there. It just really works.
“So, we wrote “Pearl River,” and we had never really worked together before at all. Never written a song together. Of course I knew who he was, and he kinda knew who I was. And we realized then, ‘Wow – so something’s here.’ And now here we are in this group together. And we’re very, very close. We’re always thinking about things in a lot of ways in the same way. He’s a very down-to-earth, straight… he’s a deep thinker by all means. He’s very straight forward, and to the point.
“When he’s doing the songs, it’s all about ‘Let’s get to it.’ It’s not a lot of fluff… he’s very honest and he makes his point really well. I think that’s (how) the ‘no nonsense’ thing we have in common works. So we are both looking for the stripped down-real version always, and it’s worked out in many ways. I mean lyrically together, and musically together. He’ll give me words, I’ll make music. He’ll hum music in my ear and I’ll get some words. We’ve written songs just about any way you can write them together. Not every song that we try to write do we write, and not every one gets worked out.
“But every song goes to Cyril Neville first. He just kind of knows where I’m coming from. We like a lot of the same things. And then there’s differences. I mean, he brings a lot of different melodies and rhythms; all this great stuff. To me, I’m learning a lot. I’m trying to take all of it in, as much as I can. He is just so knowledgeable.”
In the past, Zito has mentioned John Hiatt, Joe Ely, and Lyle Lovett as influences and songwriters whose work he admires. “Lyle Lovett is probably my all-time favorite. Yeah. It’s (songwriting) an amazing art-form. I mean, I’m just scratching the surface. I’m doing my best, you know. It’s like everything. You look into people that inspire you, you wanna be like, and at the same time, you gotta be yourself. Who else you gonna be?
“I always feel like I’m never gonna be as good as the ones that came before me, because they came before me. But I’m trying to find my own voice. It’s the same thing with the guitar playing, the singing, the whole thing. When you have the right song, you can convey emotion, or laughter; you get to do so much, with the right tune. To me, all those guys, they do that. Their songs are funny, they’re uplifting, deep, and moving, and emotional. Just like you said ‘you wanna put the headphones on and hear the whole thing,’ I wanna hear the song and I wanna hear the story; I wanna go wherever we’re going.”
He adds thoughtfully, “I would love to write a song, or record something with John Hiatt or Lyle Lovett. That would be just awesome!”
Zito self-produced Gone To Texas. We wanted to know some of the benefits he experienced doing that. “Creativity-wise, you have full reign. At the same time, you’re responsible for, ‘is this album gonna work?’ Earlier on, when I made records, I just didn’t think about it. It’s just ‘Let’s go jam.’ You know? Just do whatever. I’d never think ‘Is this record gonna sound good? Is there a flow? Do the songs work? Is there a story? Does the guitar fit the song?’ You know, any of those, all those considerations. I never considered any of that. We just went ahead and pressed record, and played loud, and too many notes, and went crazy. But working with great producers has helped me learn, besides songwriting, that there’s an art to making a great album.
“I feel like personally, we got the best of both worlds out of this album. We got some playing, and we got, you know, the songs intact. So, uh, I’m very pleased with it, and I really enjoyed getting to produce this album. The musicians were fantastic. You know, the thing with the musicians is, we always have fantastic musicians on these records. The difference is, when you use a producer, they usually wanna bring in their musicians; their people that they know, that they’ve worked with before, for different reasons. They don’t usually want to bring in your band, because they wanna throw ya a loop, they wanna … your band does what you want them to do. They want to bring people in that do something different, to make you change, and react differently. So, uh, it was great to bring in this band. I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and they did it.”
Zito hand-selected the amazing band for Gone To Texas. “I knew these guys from different various groups around… along the years, and I saw them along the way with different bands; and I picked them out individually in my head like they’re the best of what I’ve seen of what I like. Then over the years, I had it in my head that when it comes time and opportunity where I could put together a so-called dream band, these were the exact guys I had in mind.
“They all play together perfectly. Why wouldn’t they? I knew they would. They all have the same thing in common: they’re all playing for the song. They’re all song oriented musicians. They play to make the groove in the music feel good. They’re not over-players, they’re not playing chops; they are not trying to show off. It’s all about feel, and tone. And, that’s what I’m going for. I knew those guys would all play together so well. We plan on keeping it together, even though we got Brotherhood, and the guys have other projects. We plan on doing more records together, and playing and touring every time we can.”
It’s common knowledge that Zito has overcome serious addictions issues, and he is extremely grateful to be living clean and sober. He does the daily work that a solid recovery requires. We asked Zito about his recovery blog, “A Bluesman In Recovery.” When reading his blog, it’s quickly apparent that he writes from the heart. “It all really started with the Brotherhood. People were taking jobs – thinking of what they could do, and I like writing. So, originally, I was like, ‘OK, I’ll write a blog for the Brotherhood’ while on tour (last year), and I did. And, I mean, people really liked it. And a couple things touched on recovery. I have a lot of friends in recovery, all around the country, touring, you know? Some of them sent me some private messages and said ‘Boy, you ought to write a little more on that subject.’
“I thought, ‘Well, alright.’ So I wrote one specifically on being in recovery. I checked with my sponsor: ‘What do you think? Can I do this? Is this alright? Like, will this work? Am I breaking the traditions?'” Alcoholic Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous both have “The Twelve Steps” and Twelve Traditions” that are the foundation of the program, and the blueprint for successful recovery using these programs. “He said ‘No, it’s great. Put it up. That’s great. You’re doing it right.’ And I did; and I got a lot of response to it, right away. ‘Cause I agree: People, they’re really interested in real, honest shit. They’re not really interested in bullshit.
“So, I started when I can, started writing, about whatever, you know? Whatever was going on, whatever’s happening, or whatever I read. Sometimes I’m just reading my literature and I haven’t written one in a week or two, and I’ll write it out, start putting it up, and start getting such good, positive response on them. From just all kinds of people; not even people in recovery, just people. Like ‘Hey, I really appreciate that,’ or ‘Hey, I was … my son’s an alcoholic, and I don’t know what to do.’ Just people all over. I really just started out like ‘Well, it’s good for me to write it all down.’ You know, it’s good for me to write it all down.
“I’ve been doing it and I think I’m just trying to follow in that whole line of thinking with everything, down to this new album. It’s just like, there’s just nothing to hide. There’s nothing to hold back. What’s the point? I mean, the more real, and the more you show yourself, I think the more people will really get into it. They appreciate it.”
As our conversation came to a close, we asked how the new Royal Southern Brotherhood album the guys are working on is coming along? “Other than we’re starting rehearsals next month in Europe on our days off, to write new songs? We started writing new songs and we’ve got some ideas, and we’re gonna go in the studio in December and record this new album. So, between now and December, we’re gonna um, we got lots of songs and ideas, and we’re gonna put it together, and make a story, and make an album.”