“I’m a customer service performer,” declares Kim Mitchell, the master of the electric guitar who has tantalized concert audiences since the mid-70s initially with Max Webster and then as a solo artist. Though many people didn’t understand Max, the few that did always got what they asked for: complex music with curiously surreal lyrics and a stage performance that balanced between manic and sublime. And as a solo artist the fans always hear those great, well-crafted rock songs that sweat strong melodies and are filled with potent hooks that leave one buzzing long after hearing them.
With a large body of work to draw from, giving the audience full customer service could mean playing for four hours to satisfy everyone in the audience, but Mitchell is frank in his appraisal of his rock-n-roll duty, playing the hits with a few surprises, “I give the audience what they want,” and even prepares for that extreme breed in attendance that expects the obscure, “I keep a few songs buried and ready to go for the uber-fan, but on the whole I play what they expect to hear.” And with so many hits and well known songs, that still makes for a great two hour show. And of course, keeping to the old adage of ‘leave them wanting more’ at the end of the night, wishing he played ‘that’ song, but maybe next time…
This isn’t to say that Mitchell is going through the motions, only that he is older and understands the role of music in his life. Paraphrasing Peter Gabriel, who recently stated that his life is one-third music, one-third family, and one-third causes, Mitchell states, “I respect that. I love to play, but there are other things in life.” Music isn’t something Mitchell is willing to die for–it’s still important, but not everything. He continues to write new material, but he isn’t in a hurry to perform the new songs. When a song is ready, he brings it to the band and sees what happens–no pressure.
Since he’s not dying for his art anymore, if he ever did, the discussion flow into how he prepares for a show, especially when it’s a one-off gig and not a series of shows or a full tour. He notes that the guys in the band have other gigs and commitments and are always playing so when they get together as the Kim Mitchell Band, they are primed and ready. They know the material and they know each other and they’re quick to gel as soon as they hit the stage.
“If I’m really stiff, a shot of Jack before the show can help. Not that I recommend that!”With this peripatetic approach to performance and a day job that keeps him extremely busy, how does he personally prepare for a show? “I play a lot and don’t prepare too much before a show,” he muses. “If the hands are stiff, I do some work, but normally, if everything feels right, I just go with it.” He pauses and then quips, “If I’m really stiff, a shot of Jack before the show can help.” He breaks out in laughter and manages to add, “Not that I recommend that!” He stops chuckling, but the wry smile is probably still on his face, drawing a few memories to the fore. After a thoughtful pause, he adds, “A show works when the band is tight, you’re playing well, and the audience is into it. It doesn’t matter how much you practice, it either works or it doesn’t.”
He sounds slightly irritated when the subject of bands performing a whole concert of new material or their latest release from start to finish comes up. When a band does this, it’s likely that much of the audience hasn’t heard the new music before. “I’m not one of those [artists],” since it may alienate the recent fan and even drive away other fans. Not to say that there aren’t the super-fans in the crowd, but it’s a bit of a drag when one doesn’t know the music.
Since he’s writing, the subject of a new album comes up. “There will be a new album, but no definite plans right now.” And the question that all artists ask, “Will it sell?” In a slightly reflective voice he continues, “People don’t buy CDs anymore. Maybe I’ll release it as a download, maybe sell it online, or at the shows.”
And of course, once a new album does come out, will the classic rock radio station in Toronto, where he works and is an extremely successful DJ, play the album? “I don’t’ stress over it. Classic radio isn’t where it’s at anymore. Things have changed. The last album got a lot of airplay–which was great, but who knows?” He’s very matter of fact when he says this, adding, “I’ve been successful through playing and performing, not by selling records, or CDs.” It’s true, he doesn’t sound concerned. He mentions Tool, a band that he holds in high regard, stating that they never get radio play, but their shows continue to sell out. It simply means that bands/artists have to be more inventive and utilize different strategies. Radio is not going to do the work for them.
Does he listen to music differently now that he spends more time hearing those classic songs as part of his job? “I don’t know if I listen to music differently, but I do hear things that I’ve never heard before. Maybe it’s because I listen to it with headphones at the station–I don’t know, but it’s great to be surprised by music that I thought I really knew.”
And being surprised seems to be a happy occurrence for him. Is life still amazing? “Yes. Life is amazing. Some days I’ll just see something and think, ‘Wow! That’s amazing,’” as he riffs on his last album’s title.
As he waxes philosophically, with tongue only slightly in cheek, one can imagine Mitchell walking down the street with that lanky stride, taking in all that life has to offer and thinking, ‘isn’t it great to be playing music that people want to hear–ain’t life…<insert your favourite adjective or two here>.’
Photography by: Charles Hope