Mike Beck regularly performs his solo show at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, and with his band at the Stray Dog in Elko. Tamara talks to him about singing ballads, training horses, and his connection to all the places he’s lived.
TK: You play both as a solo musician and with your band, The Bohemian Saints. Some musicians play the same thing solo or with accompaniment, but you have different styles when you’re playing with the band than when you’re playing solo. Why do you play differently with the band?
MB: My acoustic solo shows are more intimate. They allow me to reach right into the folk tradition and be more of a storyteller. As a young boy I got to see a few folk acts that really put an impression on me, Pete Seeger for one. He made you feel like he was in your living room, took you someplace. Arlo Guthrie, too—his Alice’s Restaurant was, in my humble opinion, a direct link to Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. That style of storytelling . . . it just moved me.
I’ve added that element to the band too, maybe a different flavor, but it’s there. Fronting a band is kinda the same—you should be taking the audience somewhere—that’s your job. Otis Redding—he could take the audience somewhere. I try to learn from the greats. The Bohemian Saints are really a west coast band. There’s a lot of freedom, musically speaking, in our sound. We all grew up there, so it’s in our DNA.
TK: Your solo work is a lot of ballads, and you often tell anecdotes and stories to set up the songs. How are stories important to your songwriting and to your performances?
MB: I have always liked a good story and a good storyteller. It’s an art. When I cowboyed for a living, a good storyteller was a plus on the crew, and I heard some good ones, and that affected me I’m sure. The bottom line in a great song to me is how it affected the listener. Did it move you . . . did it take you someplace? Same with a story.
TK: Many of your songs are about people, and “Patrick” is about a horse. What inspires you about a certain person or a particular animal?
MB: In the case of “Patrick” it was a way for me to tell a bit of Bill Dorrance’s life by saying things about Patrick , a horse he owned. A way to tell a story really about Bill. In songwriting, there are no rules, and that’s one of the beautiful things about it!
LISTEN to Patrick
TK: Your music with the Bohemian Saints has been described as being influenced by the Byrds, as well as other rock bands like the Rolling Stones. Do you put on a different persona when you are playing more rock-influenced music?
MB: Not so much. But I do try my best to get my head in that space and just let it breathe . . . just let it create its own place, see where it takes us. That’s the big adventure!
TK: Where is the line between rock music and cowboy music? How do they connect for you?
MB: Is there a line? Not really. I grew up in California. I loved music, and I still do. I cowboyed for a living, and still do a lot of work with horses, so my sound has evolved from all that influence. I did not grow up in Texas listening to Bob Wills (which I love by the way); it was CS&N, Jackson Browne, Byrds, Buck Owens, the Brit bands, The Who, Traffic—the list goes on and on. Of course all that moved me, influenced me. Naturally you become a product of all that.
TK: You got your first horse in third grade, and you were inspired to play music at 13. Like many cowboy musicians you spent some time as a cowboy. Growing up in Monterey, California, you could have found inspiration from many places, like the mountains or the sea. Why did you choose to become a cowboy and a cowboy singer, rather than, say, a sailor?
MB: Well it was almost the sea that took me—came close. But Nevada, the Sagebrush Sea, it got me good!!
TK: You don’t live in Monterey anymore, but you return regularly to play there. Why do you make the trip to Monterey so often? What is the draw?
MB:. Monterey will always be home. I have family there, friends. The Bohemian Saints, we have a following there. It’s beautiful, the coast line, the weather—I can never stay away too long!
TK: You lived a short while in Elko, and you play at the local bar, The Stray Dog, every January during the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Why do you come to Elko every winter, even when you aren’t playing at the Gathering?
MB: The Stray Dog is where we’ve played as a band for a while during the Gathering. If you have to ask why we come back there and play every year, well, all I can say is get yourself in there when The Bohemian Saints are smashed together on that tiny stage and find out for yourself. It can be magic!
TK: You’ve lived in Montana for quite some time now, returning there after your stint in Elko. How has each of these places influenced your music? What is it about these places that you can’t shake?
MB: Montana is just a nice place to live. Everything gets more complicated when you leave Montana. You gotta look out for Moose on the road, though, on your way back from late night gigs!!
LISTEN to Don’t Hurt My Heart
TK: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.
MB: Tamara, it’s been my pleasure. See ya in Elko at The Gathering!!
You can learn more about Mike and his band at www.mikebeck.com, or meet him at the Gathering. Mike Beck and the Bohemian Saints will be performing at the 2012 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, January 30 – February 4.