“Know Thyself,” an expression made famous by Greek philosopher and mathematician Plato, is a painfully simple phrase, but its elusive message can take a lifetime to fully realize. Last year, Texas bluesman Mike Zito took a deep look inward and outward, and made the bittersweet decision to change the direction his life in order to stay true to himself. He decided he would have to leave the wildly successful Royal Southern Brotherhood if he wanted to pursue the sound, and the family, he has been building towards for most of his life.
After the announcement, avid fans and friends worried about possible rifts behind-the-scenes of Zito’s home or band life. but not only did the bonds of Brotherhood continue to hold strong with love, support, and kinship, even as Mike departed the band, but the guitarist chose a direction in his life that would allow him to remain true to himself and the things that were important in his life: his family, his sound, and the blues.
Just a week after the announcement that he would be leaving Royal Southern Brotherhood, a band he helped form and nurture for the past three years, Zito sat down with American Blues Scene to discuss in detail what really happened with his exit, his plans moving forward, and even dabbling in “light nudity” on his last album cover.
Matt Marshall for American Blues Scene: So you’re in Texas!
Down in Texas, and we leave on a Thursday. We ride out to Europe with RSB tour. I read your article with Bart, man, it was really good. I think it’s great that you’re helping us here because everybody’s really getting along and there’s no issues or nothin’. People are asking questions, I get people constantly sending me emails asking, is my family ok, did something happen, did Devon do something (laughs)? What happened?
No! No nobody did nothin’ everything’s fine. So it’ll be nice to add to that positive interview you had with Bart.
Definitely. And I like what he said about feeling like you’re a big brother to him. In fact, you seem to have that a lot. A lot of people say things like “big brother” when they’re talking about you. Let’s talk about that. Why are you leaving Royal Southern?
Well, you know, God’s honest truth, in 2011 I was in the middle of Greyhound, it had just come out, I was just developing this kind of sound I had in my head, blues but kind of country and it was a different kind of sound. And I was really kind of gettin’ there and then here comes the Royal Southern Brotherhood, kind of out of the blue for me.
And you know, my manager and I really were the ones that talked about me finally doing something with Cyril, because I’d been writing with Cyril, and I know Devon for years and he kind of showed up and I guess long story short, we got into the Brotherhood and part of me right away was like, “I don’t know that I want to do something yet, I’m in the middle of this career, I mean I’ve got nine albums out!” And I was starting to get somewhere, you know?
And between you and me, part of it was, “hey man this is going to obviously help your career.” And I do want to play music with these guys. I mean, I really really adore Cyril and Devon and I have been friends a long time, so I went into it thinking, and we kind of discussed, “hey this’ll be a great project, and you’ll still be able to do your project, and you’ll do both and it’ll be wonderful.” And then it just, man it just blew up! Which is great! You know? It was just a roller coaster.
And every year now, this is the third year this month, and every year it just keeps going and going and going. By the second year, first year you don’t know what to expect. Second year, I’m with it, you know? We can’t stop now. And I got to do a little bit of my stuff, I got to do the Texas album… but the third year, I said, “Hey this is more than what I signed on for. What are we doing? Am I going to be able to do my own thing?” And it was more like, “well man, not really.” Everybody’s committed to this career. I think in the end, as much as I love the guys in the band, it’s not exactly my style, personally.
I love what we do and I’ve learned so much, but I feel like I’m betraying the 90 songs I’ve written that I’ve been singing for years. And I really believe that and they’re just kind of sitting to the side. It’s very odd. Strange. I can only address it as it’s like having kids and then you go and marry a woman who’s got kids of her own and you don’t spend time with your kids much! Doesn’t that sound strange?
Not necessarily. You’re developing a sound that’s yours. It’s in your heart, and you’ve got to keep working on that.
And I think in my heart I knew that I love the Brotherhood. I would have liked to maybe stayed longer if it had been a little more open where I continued to do my thing and continued to do the Brotherhood. But they’re just so full force right now and just really pushing and it’s not fair to them for me to stay on…
I don’t want to get disgruntled by any means. I don’t want to have any bad feelings towards anybody, and I feel like they deserve more. If I’m going to be there kind of wishing I was doing something else, at some point… I didn’t want it to get to that point. I haven’t played a gig yet where I’ve thought, “man, I wish I was doing something else.” And I don’t want it to get that way.
So I just thought at the beginning of this year, I said, “you know what, I want to do this year with you guys, but I think it’s time that we maybe try to look for a replacement, somebody that will keep the band going.” Because I want the band to keep going! I’ve wrote a lot of songs with the band, I believe in the band, but I wanted to bow out gracefully, say thank you, and then get back to what I’m doing and keep going.
Everybody, not to say they weren’t disappointed, but everyone’s been very supportive and understanding. And again, they all want the best for me and I want the best for them. I’m leaving because I don’t want to hold them back and I’ve got to get back to what I believe I should be doing. You know?
I’ll be honest too, this is American Blues… I really love playing blues and blues-oriented music. And the Brotherhood’s not really “the blues”. They never claimed to be, even though they kind of cleaned it up in the blues because, maybe because I was in the band or whatever. But man, I love playing the blues, and I don’t quite have enough blues in the brotherhood for me! (laughs). It’s true man!
So that’s why. They’re going to keep going and I’m going to continue to keep writing songs with them. Cyril’s one of my main writing partners so we’re still writing songs now this summer, and I can’t say that I won’t keep writing songs with them and maybe I’ll get lucky enough that they’ll end up on their records, that I’ll be involved musically with them in other ways. The touring, I’ve really got this thing in mind with The Wheel. And to me, that’s what I sound like. And I’ve got so many ideas and songs I keep writing and they’re all focused that direction. So I’m ready to get back on it.
And man, I love singin’! You know, when you’re in the brotherhood, how can you compete with Cyril Neville? He’s such a great singer, and Devon’s a great player and singer so you’ve gotta share that spotlight with everybody, which has been another great learning experience for me, to take back to my own band. To allow everyone to have some space.
I love to sing and I love to play and I want to get back out front and keep moving. So The Wheel is committed, the full original five-member band is committed and we’ve got a new live album coming out, Songs From The Road.
Yeah that’s coming out soon! What day is that coming?
September the 9th. I think they might still have an issue, they might have to put it back a week or two because of a production issue. Yeah, that’s a live DVD and live CD!
You’re in some pretty good company with the “Songs From the Road” series!
Yeah man! It’s killer. I’m really proud of this one, I think it’s the best think that I’ve done. It really captures the essence of everything I like to do and all of the songs I like to play and the sound of the band kind of being a real part of creating a sound with the honky tonk piano and the jazzy bluesy sax and the rockin’ guitar. It’s really got a sound to the band, and the band’s on fire. I mean, I’m telling you they played their asses off.
So I’m excited man! That’s why I’m leaving the Brotherhood. It’s totally on the best of terms. Everyone wishes me well — as far as I know! And I certainly wish them well, and we’ve got so much to look forward to with The Wheel, There’s some U.S. dates in October and then we’ve got a full four-week tour in Europe with Samantha Fish, it’s Mike Zito and Samantha Fish and The Wheel, four weeks in Europe at the end of October and all of November.
You are touring the U.S. soon, right? And there’s talk of some dates with Sam?
We’ve got a date in the city in October together, but next year, we’re gonna go out together probably two or three times next year. Might go hit east coast and west coast, something. But we’ll go out and do ten days at a time together. Because one, we all get along well together and two, I think people love when we get together and play. It’s a win for everybody.
I saw your son Zack at Saint Louis Bluesweek Festival, where he played withyou and RSB. Is he going to be playing with you? It looks like he’s following in your footsteps!
He’s actually opening our show at Mojo’s in Columbia, Missouri in October!
You know I’ll be there for that one! [Columbia is home to the American Blues Scene office]
That’s great! His band’s opening up. I wish I could tell you the name of the band, but he hasn’t told me yet! It’s kind of new and he’s just starting at Mizzou this year and the guys he went to high school with, they’re all living there and they’ve got a house together.
So if it was up to him, he’d just not go to school and he’d come join my band, but all moms involved say “no way, he’s got to go to school.” And I agree with that, so he’s going to school and when he finishes school, I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t come and join me in my band. He’s a hell of a guitar player and he really wants to do it. So that’ll be a great thing that might happen sometime in the next few years.
I see it like a Luther Allison, Bernard Allison thing. Father and son, that’ll be a dream come true for both of us.
Yeah, and I’ve seen it live and you work really well! He’s really following you!
He’s really fun, he’s got a great smile, and he’s a great kid and we get along really well and have a lot of fun! Not to brag too much, but my oldest daughter’s fourteen and she just showed up and one night we were playing acoustic and she just came out of the blue and said, “I want to sing.” And I hear her sing all the time, but I’ve never heard her sing with me. I said, “what do you want to sing?” And she goes, “I want to sing one of Samantha’s songs.” So I said alright. She got up and sang incredibly. Rocked the house, and was not shy…
So her and my son, Sam, they’re both 13 and 14, they’re both going on the Blues Cruise with the Brotherhood and she’s working up a couple of songs to sing! I had no idea that she would be so capable! Not just singing, but getting up on stage and just doing it and being comfortable and loose. I think I might have a Partridge Family on my hands!
Mike! You started a musical Dynasty!
It’s really fun. It’s really fun. All those things kind of tie together, and touring with Sam next year, we’ll definitely do that. We’ve got a lot going on! And then The Wheel will do a new album that’ll come out next summer. I’m really fortunate, man. Things are really really coming around and the Brotherhood has helped immensely.
And you know, about Bart, when our manager, Reuben called me and said, what do you think about getting Bart for the Brotherhood? I said “Yes! That’s it!” And we were really trying to coordinate this a year out to really make it easy and as smooth and good for everyone. And Bart is a really dear friend of mine and he’s such a talented guitar player and singer and songwriter and very talented and a really good guy and we’ve got a great relationship. And when that came up, I thought… “God that’s perfect!”
As good as he is, he needs a real break. People need to know who he is, and the Brotherhood needs another blues musician in the band. And Devon can play the blues, he’s great, but he plays a lot of other things.
But what keeps that band interesting to me is you’ve got a jam rock guy, a funk leader, a crazy over-the-top rhythm section and the the blues guitar player that plays slide, and you know, I think that’s the thing that makes that band really interesting is you’ve got all these sounds. And I think if you take that blues aspect away, it just changes. And Bart comes in with that, to me we’ve got that same kind of state of mind. We can play a lot of things, but we always come back to the blues.
And Bart’s a great slide player. So it’s a wonderful transition for everyone. I really really wish him well and wish the band well.
Even as you exit, I think the “Brotherhood” of guys is still continuing whether you’re on stage or not. That’s really a serious bond that you guys seem to have.
Yeah! Exactly! Oh it is and one more thing to add, I do have five children and the past three years, I’m not in control of my schedule any more. If I want Christmas off, I gotta ask off a year in advance. because they just work, work, work. When you’re running your own band, you say “oh that’s my daughter’s birthday I need to be home.” When it’s my band, I call up the agency they say no problem, and I’m home. And I get to make that choice. I work just as much, but I get to choose around my life, or I get more choices.
And the Brotherhood, you get to be home, but there’s other guys that are working and they’re not doing anything else. This is what they’re doing. And so when I say I need that off and in a nice way, they say, “sorry, that’s not going to happen.”
There’s a lot of people in that machine, and you’re giving yourself a little bit more control now and that makes perfect sense. In fact, I think it’s fantastic that you actually have the ability to do that. It really speaks to the kind of fan base that you’ve grown, that people are so supportive of that, and that you can go back to solo touring and take control of your life a little bit more.
It’s going to be great, and there’s lots of other things. I’ve got more production work coming up, me and my good friend Tinsley Ellis have been talking for years about going out and playing some blues together. Not in a band, but just maybe getting to go out and share the stage together, do some shows together… doing something fun like a night of blues with just the two of us and a rhythm section.
Tommy Castro and The Wheel, we’ve been talking about going out as a double bill, so there’s all kinds of excitement, to me, right now! Things I want to do! People I want to play with!
So I’m very thankful to the Brotherhood. I wouldn’t be where I’m at now. The reluctance I had at the beginning, I look back now and I’m so thankful at how much it’s helped me. And all the hard work and the great music! We really worked our butts off and it’s paid off!
Your last album… Gone to Texas. I gotta ask. What’s up with the burlesque cover there for the limited edition?
(Laughs) Listen! I’ll make this story as short as possible, this is the absolute truth! Thomas Ruf and I are good friends and we love to joke and give each other a hard time. He was waiting for the artwork for my album and it wasn’t done. He was really badgering me. So I grabbed my guitar, laid down naked, my wife got her phone and took this photo and I sent it to him as a joke, like “here’s your album cover! If you can’t wait, then use this!” Instead of shocking him, he loved it! Which shocked me!
He’s German and he thought that was really great and he wanted to use it and I said, no way! I was kidding! Jump ahead six months, they’re going to print vinyl of my album as a limited edition and he calls my wife and says “I want to pull the trigger on Mike. Can we use the nude photo and not tell him and he won’t know?” and my wife says, “sure! Go right ahead. Mike’ll love it.” And I love it now…
I’m ok with it, but I’ll tell ya. I was in New York City on tour and I got a call from my manager who said, you need to go sit down. Sure. He sent me that photo, and I’m not lying, I think I might have cried a little I got so upset and I was so embarrassed. Which is so funny because that picture is exactly me! But at the time, my ego got the best of me and I thought, oh my god what did you do why did you do this?!
And my wife said, what is the matter with you? That’s you. You’re such a crazy ass why is that bothering you? And I said, yeah you’re right. and we just let it go, and I really thought it would be such a big deal and it would really span controversy and I gotta be honest, I don’t think anybody was surprised… nor do they care! It really didn’t mean much of anything! (laughs)
Well, you know… When I saw it, that’s the first thing I thought too, was well that seems about like Mike. That works.
Isn’t that crazy?
It was full of personality, you know? Let me ask you this… regarding RSB. What was your favorite memory with the band?
Oh man. Wow. We’ve really had some good ones man! I mean, I’ve played some big shows with them that were really off the charts. One of ‘em, probably for me, some of the greatest things that we did were things that I’d never seen before or been around. The Allman Brothers Band is one of my all time favorite bands ever and I’m such a fan and you know, we played, we toured with Gregg and we opened for Gregg Allman and the Gregg Allman Band, and the last night of the tour, Gregg invited me to play “One Way Out” with him. So that was… that was really unexpected. But that’s not really with the band.
I think the best thing I can imagine is the first Wanee show that we did, that was probably the most memorable thing that I’ve done with the Royal Southern Brotherhood. There was ten thousand people and Gregg Allman walked out on stage and sang “One Way Out” and sang two or three songs with the band, and Artimus Pyle, the drummer for Lynyrd Skynyrd came out and played drums and we had double drums, and that was the most “Almost Famous” moment I’ve ever had. It was like, “is this really happening!?”
Gregg Allman and there’s the guy from Lynyrd Skynyrd and I’m playing slide! And Gregg says, “hey man, you sound great on that slide!” and I’m thinking… did Gregg Allman just tell me I sound great on slide?! Did that just happen!? It was one of them times that it seemed weird, like you’re there but then you’re there in another capacity, like watching. Not star-struck. Like, “this is actually happening.”
Like it’s a dream.
Yeah, that’s it. And then you go and have to watch a video of it to kind of see, well what happened? Because I don’t even remember. Was it good? I need to go watch again. That’s by far the top thing, for me. It was a real moment.
What an experience.
Listen! Not that playing with Cyril Neville or the other guys is not enough!! You know, Cyril’s always 110% but it was really over the top.
The band was on another level.