Friday, 21 February 2020

Interview: Mike Stevens (Musical Director: Jeff Lynne's ELO/Take That)

Meeting up: Mike with Yours Truly KJS ...
#1,523: Mention the name Mike Stevens to the current crop of ELO fans and they will correctly identify him as not only the Musical Director for Jeff Lynne's ELO and Take That but also as the ELO maestro's essential right hand man for all their live performances from 2013 to the present day. But the ELO connection does not end there for a man with a stellar career CV, be it his solo career or his accomplished work with Annie Lennox, 10cc and a whole host of other musical heavyweights.

Yours Truly KJS has kept in touch with Mike, having bumped into this writer, arranger, producer and noted saxophonist during the presentation of his Honorary Fellowship at Birmingham Conservatoire back in 2016. I recently caught up again with Mike in order to conduct this exclusive interview for elobeatlesforever (elobf). Enjoy!

KJS: Hello again Mike! Let's go back to the beginning. Having graduated from Birmingham School of Music in 1979, what did a fresh faced 22 year old Mike Stevens get up to in the early 80's?
MS: Well, after studying at Birmingham I formed my own band and did various things including a couple of seasons at Butlins before taking the band on cruise ships where we played Top 40 songs for enthusiastic passengers ... Ha! This was a great grounding for me and helped me to understand the mechanics of great recordings and songwriter. I also played with some Mecca bands at this time. Again, it was all part of the learning process as we were learning new songs each week. It gave me a great start in the business but after a few years I really wanted to do my own thing and be part of the whole ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ thing.
KJS: Your solo career began to take off in 1987 with the release of your acid jazz themed "Light Up The Night" album and the single "C'est L'affaire" - a track that featured former Imagination front man Leee John. If I remember correctly, your meeting up with Leee was an important moment in the early stages of your career wasn't it?
MS: Yes! Meeting and working with Leee was very important. I was writing my own sax albums at that time and I had a small 4 track Portastudio in which I did all my own recording before getting interest from a small London based label who signed me up and put me in a big 24 track studio to make an album. Leee, who I’d met in a session, agreed to collaborate with some writing and, luckily for me, his label RCA heard this and signed up the album. I made two albums with RCA and we made a small dent of success in the States where smooth jazz was just taking off.
KJS: It was also during this time that you worked quite extensively with the late, great Pete Haycock (who was, of course, both a founding member of Climax Blues Band and ELO Part II) both in the studio and on the live circuit with "Guitar & Son" (1987) and later "Livin' It" (1992). What are your fondest memories of performing and gigging with Pete back then?
MS: Yes, Pete Haycock was a great player and around this time he was a member of ELO Part 2. I toured with him for a few years around Europe mostly, playing keyboards, sax and flute. I learnt a lot from him about playing blues, he was a master and gave me many opportunities to express myself as a soloist. Very fond memories of great gigs and lovely company! I particularly remember trading solos with him and how inspiring it was to feel the reaction of the crowd to what we were doing ... great musical adventures!
KJS: Tell me more about the moment in 1988 when Bill Withers landed in the UK with no band for a three week tour. That was your big break wasn't it?
MS: Around this time I was doing a lot of support gigs as a sax soloist supporting my albums. The Temptations, Dionne Warwick, Freddie Jackson etc. and then one day my agent rang and said he would like me to support Bill Withers on a UK tour but also would like me to use my band as his band as well! Wow ... all of a sudden I was his Musical Director for three weeks! Yes, it was a great opportunity and wonderful music! He was very chilled and generous to us, just basically letting us do our thing, arrangements were loose and we just had fun! I have a couple of great stories from that tour a bit too long to go into now but hasten to say it was very significant in my development to the bigger MD jobs that I took on later! Great learning curve!
Back in the day: Mike with Pete Haycock ...
KJS: A second solo album "Set The Spirit Free" arrived in 1990 and by then you had played with or had worked with the likes of Barry White, Brenda Russell, Dionne Warwick, The Temptations, Tina Turner, Mica Paris and Tom Jones! You must have been busy on many fronts before the call came from Take That?
MS: Yes, as I said before, I worked a lot at this time on the road with my sax albums and in the studio with the likes of Tom Jones, Mica Paris etc. also started to do a lot more guitar playing on sessions which I always enjoyed. The sax stuff was becoming more difficult around this time as tastes had begun to change and people got bored with having sax solos all over the place so I decided to move away from my solo career and just about at the same time Take That came calling in ‘93! They already had an MD and I was asked to join as a player but the MD they had didn’t really know too many players so I ended up getting a lot of the guys myself! After a few gigs the MD decided to move on so I just took over. Most of the guys I had booked anyway so was a natural progression.
KJS: You've been the Musical Director for Take That now for getting close to three decades from their initial arrival on the scene to their amazing resurgence through their many hits and as a key member of their imaginative tours. During that time you’ve overseen the establishment of their touring band and, by extension, that for Jeff Lynne too. I noticed that there's a lot of love for you and the band too from the TT fans! When you signed up, did you foresee the success of Take That and how did it affect you down the years? What would you consider to be your personal highlight to date and also your fave Take That song?
MS: Well initially it was only 1993-96 as they split and it really was a teen band although enjoying massive success. When the reform happened in 2005-6, it really was a reinvention and incredible how it developed on! We really had no idea it would take off like it did, the guys were always talking it down in the beginning, believing it was probably only going to last a very short while but, incredibly, it kept on going and when the first album of that era hit everybody realised this was something special. Highlights were always the tours, just massive, doing 8 nights at Wembley stadium in front of 85,000 people a night is something I always remember! “A Million Love Songs” has always been dear to me as it is a great feature for me as a sax player but my favourite song probably has to be “Rule The World”.
KJS: As with working with Take That wasn't enough, you’ve also spent many years working with Graham Gouldman and have performed with 10cc on several tours. With a songbook ranging from the quirky to progressive rock to the layered eloquence of "I'm Not In Love", did you approach working with 10cc any differently than with Take That? Looking back, which 10cc track did you enjoy performing most?
MS: I was in 10cc for close to 14 years and loved it! Graham is a wonderful guy and an iconic songwriter. We played all over the world and the band was always loved wherever we performed! I played mainly keys with the band but also did a bit of bass and electric now and again. Vocals have always been a big part of the band and I always enjoyed the singing parts immensely. The pressure of other gigs has meant unfortunately I had to stop doing it but great memories still remain. Iain Hornal joined around the time I left and is a perfect fit for them. We even did a few crossover gigs together! I loved doing “Good Morning Judge” as I played bass and “The Things We Do For Love” is brilliant but nothing beats playing “I’m Not In Love”.
KJS: Your career seems to have never stopped expanding and evolving as you've also been the Musical Director for Annie Lennox more or less from the time that you started working with 10cc in 2002. You also produced her albums "Songs Of Mass Destruction" in 2007 and "A Christmas Cornucopia" in 2010. I imagine that this is another string to your bow that you've thoroughly enjoyed! How did the opportunity to work with Annie come about? Is there also a stand out moment from working with Annie that you'd care to recall?
MS: Annie has been a wonderful friend and colleague since I started working with her in the very early 2000’s. I met her initially to put together and MD her first real solo tours in 2002-3. She is a truly inspiring performer and writer and I can honestly say some of my greatest musical moments have been in her company! As she started to perform less, I started to work with her in the studio and eventually we formed a great working partnership on her later albums which were also recorded at my own studio. As well as the albums you’ve mentioned, one of the big highlights for me was to be nominated for a Grammy for “Nostalgia”, an album we did in 2015. We performed the key track “I Put A Spell On You” at the 2016 Grammys and Annie very definitely stole the show. The same song also became the opening music for “50 Shades of Grey” which was a big highlight for me as a producer and performer. There are too many magical moments to mention with Annie, maybe in another interview I’ll elaborate!
Star of the show: Mike's solo releases ...
KJS: You were asked to oversee the Queen's Jubilee Concert at Buckingham Palace in 2012 and also the closing ceremony for the London Olympics. They both must've been a huge honour for you and hopefully not too much pressure! Did you get to enjoy both occasions when I imagine that there were many aspects of both productions keeping you busy?
MS: The Diamond Jubilee was without doubt the biggest job I ever took on! It was wonderful and scary all at the same time. Coordinating playing and organising the music and musicians for such a massive concert was daunting and knowing that we were playing live to nearly a billion people meant I could only really enjoy it after we had done it ... Ha! Again there are many stories associated with that day, too many to recount but it was fun and a great experience! Especially the after show in Buckingham Palace ... brilliantly surreal!
KJS: Fast forward to 2013 when you and the TT band were 'borrowed' by Jeff courtesy of Gary Barlow for the Children In Need Rocks concert and the ELO ball started rolling, proverbially speaking. Not long after that, Hyde Park happened and then three major tours not forgetting Glastonbury and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction. I guess that your work with Take That10cc and Annie Lennox meant that you had covered many genres and styles. How did you find learning and arranging all those great Electric Light Orchestra hits for the live shows? Were there any challenges that you'd not experienced before or were the songs something you took to instantly? You look very comfortable with Jeff on stage. What is working with Jeff like?
MS: Meeting Jeff in 2013 was a wonderful coincidence ... and proved very beneficial in the long run! I’ve always worked with Gary Barlow on the “Children in Need Rocks” shows and put together the house bands. In 2013 Jeff had agreed to be on the bill with Richard Tandy so obviously I had two ELO songs to do with him for the show. These shows are very musically involved and require lots of rehearsals and I always recall we use to end long days in rehearsals with “Mr. Blue Sky”. It really helped to relax the band after a long day in the studio. I just hit it off with Jeff at this time, I was a big fan of the music and really felt a close understanding of what he wanted. It’s was a great success on the show and, low and behold, a year later I got a call from te BBC to say that Jeff was up for reforming his ELO with us to do Hyde Park ... Quite an unbelievable moment! As I said, I feel a great understanding with Jeff and I felt his vision for bringing the band back. He really wanted to recreate those records as he had recorded them back in the 70’s - something that was very difficult back then! He’s great to work with because he knows what he wants but, at the same time, he let’s me get on with it! If something’s not right he will tell me straight away, it’s all about trust and as long as it’s right he’s happy. He’s an incredibly generous and funny man ... We’ve had some wonderful times and I’m so honoured to be standing next to him on a stage, as are all of his band. He’s a musical genius on that stage as far as we’re all concerned and it really is a labour of love for everyone!
KJS: Having enjoyed and still enjoying what can only be described as wonderful career (with a new ELO tour around the corner), what would you say are the moments, things and/or events that you personally take most pride from since you started out?
MS: Hyde Park has to be up there! Nobody, including Jeff, knew how this was going to work out. It was only after the first few chords of “All Over The World” that I think I knew it was special, up until then we were nervous and a bit unsure. The Wembley concert is probably my overall favourite but 3 nights at the Hollywood Bowl in LA with an orchestra was pretty amazing too!
KJS: Now here's what always get asked during my interviews for elobf! What are your fave ELO songs and, of the ELO songs that have not been given the live treatment to date by Jeff Lynne's ELO, what would be your choice for a live debut later this year?
MS: Ah! The favourite question ... Ha! I genuinely have more than one favourite! It’s genuinely hard to pick out just one ... “Mr. Blue Sky”, “Don’t Bring Me Down”, “Telephone Line”, “All Over The World”, “Livin’ Thing” ... love them all! As for ones we haven’t done, I can’t say as I may be giving things away but there are some and hopefully we’ll be doing them in the new show.

A personal message from Mike:
"I would like to say a big thank you to all the bands loyal followers and fans who have been so generous towards us in bringing back the music of Jeff and ELO. We really appreciate all the kind words and look forward to seeing you all on the shows!"
Stellar career: Mike with Jeff Lynne's ELO, Take That and 10cc ...
Yours Truly KJS and elobeatlesforever (elobf) would like to put on record their sincere thanx to Mike Stevens for his participation in this interview. We wish Mike and the band all the very best for the Autumn tours and whatever lies beyond ...
*** Until next "Time" in the elobf universe ... KJS ... 21-Feb-2020 ***

6 comments:

  1. Mr. Stevens not giving the game away... lol. I’ll have a guess instead so. A new opening number like maybe Fire On High or Daybreaker, Hold On Tight or Calling America added and From Out Of Nowhere to replace When I was A Boy. Don’t shoot me if I’m wrong lol. Enjoyed reading that, thanks Keith.

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  2. To both KJS and Mike Stevens: This was an awesome interview!!! I absolutely loved it. Continued success in the future.

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  3. Great stuff!! I should get all those albums, I'm finishing my 10cc collection btw.

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  4. Excellent! Cherry Blossom Clinic, now has competition!

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  5. Love the Article. Excellent 😊😊❤️

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