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Of Mercy and Exodus: A Mike Farris Reader

Mike Farris and Tina Haase Findlay at Flying Mango

Brandon Findlay: So much of the blues and gospel roots of American music describe a sort of “exodus” as an ideal, whether it’s out of bondage, bad love, bad luck, whatever it may be. What do you think it is about the idea of exodus that appeals to mankind?

Mike Farris: For me, the whole “exodus” thing, how that plays in and how that resonates with people all over the world- it’s a universal thing. This whole relationship we got with the exodus, the struggle to be free of bondage, to be free of our struggles- the reason why, for me, is that everybody, across the board, has a burden. They have a cross they have to bear. They have something they’re weighted down with. And that’s our task on Earth, I think, is to identify it, face it, deal with it. And it changes, you know? And to seek freedom, and become free of it, on our path to back to God.

When I did Salvation in Lights, I looked around at one point and was like “Man, I don’t know if there’s anybody else doing this. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing,” so I started looking around while we were in the recording process…

BF: In terms of the mix [of elements] you were attempting to hit on that record?

MF: Yeah- I wasn’t really worried about appealing to anybody with that record, but I was curious. I was like “We’re on to something here- I wonder if there’s anybody else doing this right now?” And I looked around and I really couldn’t find anybody. So that kind of alarmed me, you know? But at the same time, I was thinking this might be a good thing,

So when we started doing it and presenting it to people, what I realized was that I found that… we never really played churches, never did that kind of [thing]… I was on a Christian label [INO Records] and [they] just didn’t know what to think about me. But [they] just didn’t want to see me on the sidelines,[they] wanted me in the game, just doing something, so [they] signed me and was like “Hey, let’s try it.” But we were playing our music in the secular world, and I was a little fearful, but what I found was that everywhere you go, we played this music and people were trippin’ their minds out, high, drunk, whatever, at 3 o’clock in the morning at a festival, man, and we’re playing and they won’t let you offstage!

You see something in people when you play old music like this, that comes from… it’s birthed from struggle, a peoples’ struggle for freedom, and what it does is that it resonates with people and it knocks down all walls. So that theme of struggle, of exodus, is universal. There are no walls whatsoever. We’re all in this together, just trying to figure it out the best we can and get moving on and be happy.

BF: Amen. On that note, you were part of what some people considered the second generation of jambands when you were in the Screaming Cheetah Wheelies. Since then, you’ve lived your own exodus out of things in your life. Looking back, what was your “exodus”? What did you need to exodus out of, as an artist and as a man?

MF: Well, I was a drug addict and I was an alcoholic, since I was 15. I overdosed when I was 20, nearly died. Came close to overdosing who knows how many times, when you know you’ve pushed it too far. So, that was a big thing for me, trying to figure out why I was being self-destructive like I was. The other thing was, is that you have a whole lot of other little things you have to fight your way out of too. Even if it’s little simple things, like “I need to overcome this. I need to be more assertive. If I don’t want to do this, I should just say no.” Like, I don’t want to play that song, whatever [laughs]. It’s an ongoing thing, but the biggest thing for me was trying to get a grip on why I am self-destructive and trying to maintain that sobriety, ‘cause I don’t want to go back to that. I don’t want to go back to that bondage, which is interesting too because the full story of the Jews, it doesn’t end when they’re free.

BF: For forty years they wandered.

MF: Forty years! And then it goes on and on and on and on. They were rebuilding the wall. God told them they needed to build this wall and it was a divine thing. And they were like “Well… let’s do it next year, you know? There’s, like, some shit going on right now” and so they put it off for a year, and the next thing you know- fourteen years passes. They’re not listening to that spirit in ‘em going “Hey man, you know that thing I’ve been talking to you about…. you need to get on that.” So, it’s just those little things. Every story that’s been told.

BF: With Levon Helm passing recently, it has brought attention back to The Band. They made timeless music that sounded “old” to people, but was very much of their contemporaries as well. It was timeless, yet of its time, like many of the songs you played tonight.

MF: I meant to do a Levon song tonight.

BF: Songs like “Selah Selah” and “Devil Don’t Sleep Tonight” fit impeccably well next to the traditional songs you’ve arranged. Can you discuss that creative process, not only in keeping something “old” alive, but tapping into the same qualities of someone like a Thomas Dorsey when he wrote “Precious Lord”?

MF: [The creative process is] changing all the time, and you’re always chasing it. And for me, I’ve got so many things going on in my head- things like “Hey, check this out!” or “You should do this!” There are so many musical things coming at you all the time. I was just seeing this- maybe the last interview Levon did was back in February, up at his house. This guy was interviewing him, and I saw it online the day he died. My son, he just loved Levon. He met him, and Levon just loved on him too. So we were looking up stuff online and saw this interview with Levon, and Levon’s frickin’ on his deathbed, basically. It’s February, he’s sick , and as soon as the guy asks him something about what’s turning him on, what’s getting him going now, you saw him light up, man. He started talking about this Middle Eastern music that he was really digging on at the time, a few African things, but mostly Middle Eastern stuff. And [my son] Christian and I looked at each other and went “That’s weird”, ‘cause we listen to a lot of Middle Eastern stuff. And as soon as he said that, Levon went “guh, guh-guh-GAHT” [mimicing Levon]... it was really sweet.

[10:33 of the video above].

You’re always trying to allow everything to come in, and then sweep it all away and see [what’s left] and sift it. It’s a process.

BF: Talking about things always bouncing around your head, how do you know when a something is “worthy”- like “Mercy Now” by Mary Gauthier? How do you know something is worth the extra bit of attention or worth recording?

MF: A lot of times I don’t see it. A lot of times it’s a friend of mine.

BF: So sometimes it’s a trusted but external influence?

MF: Sometimes- like Marty Stuart recommended that I did “Green Green Grass of Home” and then my friend Audley Freed suggested that I…

BF: I love Audley Freed.

MF: Audley’s got a knack for picking songs for me, so if he ever says to me “Hey, you should think about doing this song,” I’ll always listen to him.

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