Singing the Elusive Third Verse With Michael Franti
Michael Franti has long been known as a Peace Warrior who whips an audience into a euphoric frenzy while bouncing barefoot up and down on stage. He is also a compassionate ambassador of good vibes and music while traveling to parts of the globe that most people would stay within a safe 5,000-mile distance. His recent travels to the Middle East were made into a film called I Know I’m Not Alone that have had nationwide screenings with Franti delivering music and Q&A sessions after the film. Franti has, as usual, also been extremely busy playing live shows throughout 2005. He and his band, Spearhead, were part of this summer’s biggest touring festival, the BIG Summer Classic and he played an the inaugural Vegoose Festival on a hot October afternoon in front of a very receptive Sam Boyd Stadium crowd and his mom riding the rails in the front rowa fact unknown to Franti until he hit the stage. In this wide-ranging interview, Franti discusses the important union between music, politics and social work that have formed the foundation of the man’s art since his college days at the University of San Francisco. Perhaps, most profoundly, Franti also defines a way in which outsiders and the so-called freaks’ of our sometimes fringe music culture don’t necessarily need to remain outside the gates of social change.
RR: You related a story about your mom when you were onstage at Vegoose and she was in the front row. She told you that “Burning Man used to be cool but now it’s just a drunken orgy.”
MF: (laughter) First of all, she’s never been there. She’ll probably never even go close to it. I said, “Where did you get that?” And she said, “Oh, I just heard it from somebody who used to work there.” My mom’s the straightest, most conservative person you’ll ever meet but every now and then she comes up with these really funny things. Then, I was shocked to see her in the front row at the show. I said, “You know, mom, you can go sit on the side of the stage,” and there she is in the front row, leaning over the railing. She’s only been to a few of my showsseventeen years of playing, she’s probably been to five or six shows.
Her reaction [at Vegoose] was that she was smiling and laughing and putting her hands up in the air. It was just great to see her there. Also, to be in Vegas, toomy mom would never go to Vegas. The thing that I really liked about the Vegoose Festival was that it was in Vegas, which is this ultimate bastion or hellholehowever you want to look at itof American consumerism gone crazy. Yet, there were thousands of really cool, diverse and unique freaky people that descended on the city. It was so great to walk through the grand entry of the MGM Grand Hotel and see these dirty hippies sitting next to tourists. I loved the irony of the whole situation.
RR: Your late night gig was cancelled due to contract complications whereby you weren’t allowed to play any gigs outside of the Vegoose Festival while in Vegas?
MF: I wasn’t privy to all of the inside scoop. It wasn’t so bad for my mom, though. She got to go to Cirque de Soleil. (laughs) I was disappointed; we always love to play but there will be other opportunities.
RR: You made a comment onstage at Vegoose about the National Guard being in Iraq instead of in New Orleans to help out the Hurricane Katrina victims.
MF: What Hurricane Katrina has doneif we try to look to the bright side of itnot to belittle anybody’s painit has opened us up to a greater dialogue with our nation, which is what do we want to be as a country? Do we want to be a nation that spends its resources on war and creating more enemies around the world? Or, do we want to be a nation that spends its resources taking care of people in this country? With the overflow from that, working to create friendships and harmony in the world with social justice and economic and environmental sustainability for the whole planet. It’s really underscored by the fact that all of our National Guardsmen and helicopters were in Iraq when we needed them most.
RR: I was doing research for this interview and I read a BBC news item about President Bush that said, “God told him to invade Iraq and Afghanistan.”
MF: Someone had sent me an e-mail about it and I didn’t know if it was a hoax or not because it seemed like such a wacky thing to say. That’s one of the things that I heard as I was traveling throughout the Middle East. I would say to people, “Do you agree with the fundamentalist Muslim extremists in your country?” And they would say, “Well, do you agree with the fundamentalist Christian extremists in your country?” A lot of times, living in America, we kind of have tunnel visionit’s okay for us to have weapons of mass destruction but, heaven forbid, anybody else has them because they might use them. Really, right now, the only people using them in the world are us. When you hear stuff like that, it kind of lifts the veil up a little bit. I’m somebody that opposes religious extremism on all sides. I totally support religious freedom for everybody.
RR: What’s that song that you sang at Vegoose that talks about God being too big to be thought of in such small terms?
MF: Yeah, it’s a new song called “East to West” where there’s one part that goes:
Life is too short to make just one decision Music’s too large for just one station Love is too big for just one nation And God is too big for just one religion.
RR: Draw the line all the way back to your mom and how you started in music and how you developed your strong point of view.
MF: The first part is that I grew up in a musical family. My mother played piano and organ in the church. There were five kids and four of them played instruments. I was the
fifth that didn’t. I played basketball and that’s all I wanted to do. I went to the University of San Francisco and played basketball there. I lived in a dormitory and my dorm room was right above the campus radio station. Every day I’d go down to the radio station and check out these really cool records with great music that I’d never heard before. I bought a bass and eventually quit playing basketball. My roommate was seven feet tall and he was a guitar player. This Fender Strat would look like a ukulele on him. (laughter) I’d sit there and plunk on my bass and he was actually a pretty skilled guitarist. At the same time, my school had a lot of money invested in South Africa. There was a movement on campus to get the school to divest from South Africa. I started writing poetry about that and started performing at ralliesmusical writing.
You’re asking about how my political views were shaped. When I was born, my mother’s Irish, German and French. My father’s African American and Seminole Indian. When they conceived me, they were never married. My dad never lived with my mom and they weren’t going to get married. My mother felt that her family would never accept me because they were very racist so she gave me up for adoption. I was adopted by Carol and Charlie Frantithat’s my mom who was at the show in Vegoose; she adopted me and raised me. My whole life I never felt like I was part of the family I lived in, the community or the schools I went toI always felt like an outsider. I always identified with people and groups of people that were left out. That’s where my political thoughts came from, my sense of humanism, and also my sense of the importance of honoring the earth that is being trampled upon today. My songs are aboutnot necessarily people that are outsidersbut that part of each of us that feels left out at times or that feels like a freak or that feels like a nerd, and people that aren’t in the right social or ethnic group. That’s what I write about.
RR: That is why it so extraordinary that you have an ability to unite people. When did you know that you could communicate such strong ideals to a mass audience?
MF: When I first started, I really didn’t have that and there wasn’t a skill about it. I wrote a lot of songs that were just like “Fuck The System” and “Fuck The Man.” It’s really easy to write songs like that. It takes a lot more craft to write a song that expresses human emotion beyond just anger. That’s what I try to get toI want people to walk away from a song saying, “I can identify with that; I understand where that’s coming from.” Also, do it in a way that’s fun and that you can let it go; the music makes us able to let go whatever it is that we’re holding onto. That’s what the shows are about for mecreating an opportunity for people to release whatever it is that they’re holding onto.
RR: What’s running through your mind when you’re on stage? Do you get into a trance? Do you feel different? Are you outside of yourself the whole time?
MF: Sometimes, I definitely go outside of my body and myself. There are times when you are so in the moment that nothing else around you matters. You’re not concerned about if you just played a bad note. You’re not concerned about what you’re going to be
doing after the show or two weeks from now. You’re just right there perfectly in the moment and you feel a spiritual connectedness with yourself, the music and other people.
There’s other times when I’m up there and I’m thinking ahead, “FuckI hope I can remember the third verse.” (laughter) I’m usually in the “I hope I can remember the third verse” frame of mind.
RR: Do you ever look out at the crowd and get distracted?
MF: Sometimes. It’s usually if I’m playing in a small setting, like an acoustic thing in a small club. I’ll look out into the crowd and something will be very distracting to me. If I start to forget, I’ll just make lyrics up, which are usually better than the ones I wrote. (laughter)
RR: Let’s talk about your new film, I Know I’m Not Alone. You’ve had multiple screenings, including one in the land of Shakespeare festivals, Ashland, Oregon.
MF: The reason I called the film I Know I’m Not Alone is that during the last five years, I’ll listen to the radio, I don’t have a T.V. at home but if I’m in a hotel room, I’ll watch television and I’ll get so frustrated and say, “I wish things could be different but I don’t have any idea about how to change them.” I feel totally powerless and I feel like, man, am I the only person in the world who thinks that we would make the world a better place by not creating more enemies with our military? Maybe the world would be a better place if we spent some of that money that we spend on the military on things in this country that are sorely needed like healthcare, education and taking care of the neighborhoods that need help. So, there are times when I really feel alone.
As I went to the Middle East and traveled throughout Baghdad, Israel and Palestine and came back and traveled around this country and talked to people about it, I realized that I’m not alone. There are millions and millions and billions of people on the planet that want to do everything possible to create peace, economic stability, social justice and environmental sustainability for this planet. Going to the Middle East and making this film was a personal pilgrimage for me to try to connect with the realities of war and to see if there was anything I could do to help create peace. The answer I came up with was to make a film.
RR: How has the film been received?
MF: It has been an amazing triptraveling around the country, watching people watch the movie. I’ve seen people cry. I’ve seen people see Iraqi families speak for the first time and scenes of soldiers speaking about what it’s like to occupy another nation. I play music after the screenings and listen to people talking about the film with questions like “What’s going to happen in Iraq? What does the future hold? What can we do to help?” That’s been the most exciting part about seeing people get turned on by the film and, afterwards, asking for a copy so they can show it to every person that they know. We want people to put on home screenings and have screening parties in their house so they
can discuss and talk about the film.
RR: What are your plans for next year?
MF: We will still be touring with the film. We have two albums in the works. One is called Yell Fire and it is really a rockin’, loud and funky Spearhead album that are all songs written about my time in the Middle East. There’s another album called Cool Water, which is also songs about my time in the Middle East but they are acoustic and they are a lot more intimate. Both albums should be coming out in April 2006.
RR: Let’s go further out. When do we start thinking about Election Year 2008?
MF: We all have to be realistic about what it takes to get someone elected in this country. The right wing is very skilled about it. They concentrate on certain ideals that they feel are emotional issues like gay marriage or abortion and they run on those issues. People on the other side have to decide: what are the issues that we feel strongly about? We have to be shameless about them. In the last election, I wanted Kerry to stand up and say, “You know what? This war is really fucked and we need to do everything we can to bring it to as fast a close as possible.” But, he didn’t say that. Those against the warand there’s a lot more, probably the majority of the peopleare looking for a candidate to support that is going to have some spine, some backbone. We also have to acknowledge that it takes money to get people elected in this country. I’ve been someone who has said, “There’s so much fuckin’ money,” but the fact of the matter is that is what gets people elected. If we want to win on this side, then we have to do things that raise funds to make it happen.
I think music has a big role to play in it. It’s not necessarily that you’re going to convince people overnight to vote for a certain candidate or not. Music has a role in creating an atmosphere where people feel like we’re part of a generation that is leaning towards change. We saw that in the 1960s and 70s but it has been absent for a long time. I think the way things are going, people in this country are ready for change and music is beginning to reflect that.