In Advance of Next Week's Beachland Show, Mike Zito Talks About Recording During the Pandemic

click to enlarge Singer-guitarist Mike Zito. - Scott Lukes
Scott Lukes
Singer-guitarist Mike Zito.
Like many musicians, Texas-based guitarist, singer, songwriter and record producer Mike Zito, a founding member of Royal Southern Brotherhood, a terrific blues-rock supergroup which also included Cyril Neville, Devon Allman, Yonrico Scott and Charlie Wooton, makes his living on the road. Last year, when the pandemic hit, Zito had just started a European tour that would’ve paid the bills in a major way.

As venues began to shutter, Zito and his band mates had to scramble to get back home.

"[Covid] was being just talked about as we went over,” says Zito via phone from his Texas home. He performs at 8 p.m. on Friday, June 18, at the Beachland Ballroom. “We didn’t think anything of it. We didn’t know what it was going to be. We played a few shows in Norway and got about three shows into Germany. We had booked 33 shows total. It’s a real long tour and a real good tour. Every time we did a show, it was getting worse and worse. People were starting to not come out, and all of a sudden, they cancelled like twentysomething shows the next morning. That’s when we realized we needed to get the hell out of there. It was crazy."

From then on, Zito says he went through what every other musician goes through.

"There was no work and no anything," he says. "We tried to do lifestreams, and I luckily have a recording studio behind my house. There were other things to do, but none of it equals playing live.”

While he was still in Germany getting ready to come home, Zito decided he needed to find a way to be productive during the upcoming downtime. So right then and there, he began writing tracks for an album he dubbed Quarantine Blues.

“We were all going home to four different cities, and we were going to have to quarantine,” says Zito. “I said, ‘You know what? Why don’t we see if we can write, record and put out a record in two weeks.' I didn’t know how we could do it. I knew that people do it, even though we had never not recorded in the same room. That started to give us something to do. I put [the album] up [online] and told the fans we’re giving them in a free record.”

The fans, however, had the option to make donations, and they did, enabling Zito to pay the band about what it would’ve made on the European tour.

“It just turned into this project,” says Zito. “I was writing songs on the plane on the way home. I was inspired by that challenge of whether we could do it. It turned out to be good.”

As the year went on, Zito tried to tour and play, but it became more and more apparent that things weren’t returning to normal anytime soon.

“By September [of last year], I knew it wasn’t’ going to be over quick,” says Zito. “I was done with the record label I was on. I was going to be on my own record label. I thought by summer of 2021, we might be getting out of our shell, and I’ll started writing some songs.”

Zito normally writes a bunch of songs, and the group records them in a matter of days in the studio.

Not this time.

“We started working and taking our time and recording at different tempos or styles, something I’ve never ever had time to do before,” he says when asked about how Resurrection, his latest effort, came together. “By end of September and beginning of October, I started working on the songs, and we worked on the album through March of this year. As much as a bummer as it’s been and it’s horrible for people who lost loved ones, creatively for me [the pandemic] was a good break. It gave me a second to reset and spend time with my family and what I want to sound like and how many shows I wanted to play.”

Since the album would come out on his own label, Zito felt that he could take the liberty to put something on the cover other than a photo of him and his guitar. He found a South Korean artist on Instagram that he liked and enlisted her to draw the psychedelic image for the album cover.

“She uses chalk and pencil, and it’s all done by hand,” he says. “[I saw her work], and I sent her a message and asked if she ever made an album cover before. She didn’t speak English, so she found someone who did. We started to communicate. She didn’t know who I was. I wanted an art cover and asked her to put a guitar in it and make it darker on the bottom and lighter on the top. That’s all I told her. She sent it, and it’s unbelievable. It’s fantastic. That’s what the album sounds like. It’s a mixture of all these different things.”

Resurrection serves as a theme for the album, which kicks off with a sneering rendition of the J.J. Cale tune "I'll Make Love to You," setting the tone for the disc, which comes off more like a rock record than a blues album.

“I’m always looking for a story or idea,” says Zito when asked about the album's theme. “We put a record out, and it’s like this guy sings and plays guitar really well. There’s a lot of people who do that. There needs to be something different. I may not know right away what it’s going to be. I started to get this idea because I had written that song. It’s about marriage and my wife and being early in my marriage. We had our second child by accident.  I was still young and had been married three times. I always leave. I stay a couple of years and then say, ‘What was I thinking?’ I realized it’s me, and I have a fear of intimacy. Of course, we worked it out, and [my marriage] is fantastic and wonderful. It’s a great idea for a song. I think people can relate.”

In addition, turning 50 also served as what Zito says was a "huge wake-up call" and inspired his approach on the album.

“I never made a record I think is terrible," Zito says. "I like them all, but I really like this record. I feel like it really has a lot of heart and soul in it.”

Mike Zito Band, 8 p.m., Friday, June 18, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $70-$140,
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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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