Featured Interview – Mike Zito


Cover photo © 2022 Marilyn Stringer

image“Recording is an opportunity to stretch out, branch out. We’re gonna make a studio album every few years. I try to make records that are kinda more Blues infused. I’ve never really gone into the studio and said let’s make a Blues record, I’ve never really done that. But I’ve made Blusier albums, and then I just kinda keep doing my thing. I push it a little further and then I kinda bring it back.”

Mike Zito is the insatiable creative fire at the heart of modern Blues. A scorching guitarist, impassioned singer and clever songwriter, Zito is also a committed artist. His art is Rocking, it’s energetic and brings lots of joy and fun. A self made man, Mike has throughout his career held the rains of his own destiny. Teaching himself the art of making records, in the early 20-teens Mike expanded his skills from solely chasing down his own muses to helping others realize their art. In 2018 Zito and partner Guy Hale founded their own independent record label Gulf Coast Records as a way to give back to friends and fellow artists who hadn’t gotten a fair shake from the record industry. What started as a boutique side project exploded into an artistic revolution in the Blues community making Gulf Coast the home for a stable of creative iconoclastic genre defying artists.

First to understand the fresh Gulf Coast sound, one needs to understand the perpetual motion machine that is Mike Zito. During the long Covid slow down Mike did what a musician does, produce music. But, Mike produced a bunch of music. A triumphant guest laden Chuck Berry tribute album, his major artistic leap of a record Resurrection (not to mention a one off Quarantine Blues record) and the recently released double live album Blues for the Southside.

“I guess it depends on how you look at it,” Mike quips. “It’s hard to make records when you’re touring constantly and on the road. You have to work on ‘em a year in advance and write songs because you have limited amounts of time cause you’re doing another job. Touring, traveling, entertaining, I mean if you’re doing the job that I do. So, to have 2 years off (haha) seems to me everybody should be writing songs and making music. That’s what we do, that’s our job. Everyone should have released new albums and made new music. I don’t feel like I went crazy out of my way, I feel like I did what we’re supposed to do. I’m not being catty, I don’t know what everybody did. I get that a lot, ‘wow you’ve been really busy, done so much.’ That makes me think hasn’t everybody, or is it just me?”

Mike Zito has the nonchalance of a person who has a natural talent. It is in Mike’s nature to keep producing, keep doing his job, so he can’t understand how remarkable and unique that is. It is this same natural drive and commitment to wherever the muse takes you that propelled Gulf Coast Records from humble beginnings into a force to be reckoned.

“Sincerely, no one set out to start a record label. It doesn’t sound like a good idea.” Mike jokes, laughing. But he admits “It does now, we put a lot of work into it. But, you know, if you ask Bruce Iglauer (founder of Alligator Records), Thomas Ruf (Founder of Ruf Records) one of these guys: Hey, should we do this? I can hear Bruce’s voice in my head saying ‘oh, that’s a terrible idea don’t do that.’ So I guess my point is it was never a dream of mine, I never thought (in a silly voice) ‘and one day I’m going to own my own record label, that’s my goal.’ That was never my goal.”

imageSo if it was such a bad idea, where did the record label come from? It was born out of Mike’s deep commitment to his friends and fellow musicians and his irrepressible good nature. Mike tells us the origin story:

“Guy Hale, he’s a dear friend I met in England when I was touring with the Royal Southern Brotherhood, 10 years ago – 12 years ago, (chuckling) I’m not good with time anymore. And we just hit it off. He was a businessman, but he also wrote. He wrote songs and played a little guitar. He’s an excellent writer. We just hit it off over the years. He does a lot of charitable work in England and you know I’m in recovery and he was doing work for homeless kids that were on drugs and things and kinda dear to my heart. In 2018 he said ‘well, I’m retiring and what are we gonna do? Let’s do something in the music business.’ (chuckling) I was like ‘what you wanna get in a van and drive around with us, you know?’ What would we do, I mean this is what I’m doin’. He said well just think about it.”

“So we met on the Blues Cruise 2018, we were all on the cruise together, my wife, him and his wife. I said ‘you want to do something? We could start a record label.’ I said it should be very small because I don’t have time to run a record label. I’m trying to sell Mike Zito, not everybody else. I said but maybe we can help small artists. Growin’ up in St. Louis there were always great artists but they didn’t always write their own music they didn’t know how to make a record. You know a lot of artists don’t even know how to get started. I’ve done all that so I thought well this would be good. We’re not gonna compete with Alligator or Ruf Records, we’re just gonna make small low budget recordings to help somebody you know get the ball rollin.”

“So that was literally the beginning of Gulf Coast Records,” Mike reminisces. “And that was the idea and the plan. Our first release was Tony Campanella, one of my close friends since I been 18 in St. Louis. He was a prime candidate for this type of opportunity. You know, come to my house, we’ll make the record, I got the studio won’t cost anything. We’ll spend a little money to put it out. And in the process of that I was also still producing for Ruf, I was still a Ruf recording artist.”

Then came Ruf Records labelmate and close friend Albert Castiglia and his genre shattering new album: “I produced Albert Castiglia’s album Masterpiece. I love that record,” Mike gushes. He explains the concept Albert and he went for:

“I don’t know if it’s a Blues record or not, we’re generally not always thinking hey let’s make a Blues record. We’re trying to make new music. Albert had a story that was amazing. He found out he has a child, at 50, that lives 30 minutes away from him for the past 10 or 15 years, I mean it’s crazy. You needed an emotional record and we didn’t want musicians to get in the way. Less people involved, he didn’t want all that playing involved. We needed the emotion to come through. In the Blues genre that’s not a typical record. You don’t use a drum machine or drum loops or all that kind of stuff. Albert may not ever make a record like that again, it’s not really what he sounds like and that’s why we made it.”

Slated to be a Ruf Record release, when Mike and Albert brought it to their label owner, Thomas Ruf, the reaction was not what they expected.

image“Thomas Ruf didn’t like it at all. He didn’t think it sounded good, he didn’t understand (chuckling) why I played drums. He said ‘you’re not a drummer, why are you playing drums on my album?’ Because we don’t want a good drummer, we’re trying to do this other thing. You know I get it, he just didn’t wrap his head around it, just didn’t understand what I was trying to do. He didn’t want to put it out and he wanted us to re-record it and Albert said no way. I have a very good relationship with Thomas Ruf still today, I love Thomas Ruf. I learned so much from him, he’s my friend, he’s given me so many opportunities. And I understood why he didn’t like it.”

Necessity being the mother of invention, Masterpiece ended up being a line in the sand for Castiglia. It also became a big game changing opportunity for Gulf Coast. Zito was reluctant, not because he doubted the album at all, but because he didn’t think his small label had the bandwidth.

“Albert had had enough and he was like ‘yeah I’m not re-recording this.’ He stood by it and he said ‘well you put it out Mike. Would you put it on the new record label of your’s?’ I was like ‘man, we’re not a record label.’ I mean Albert Castiglia is already famous and gettin’ Blues award nominations and touring internationally. Course my partner was biting at the chomp because he’s a businessman that ran a million dollar operation. He’s never done anything small in his life. He was like ‘let’s do it.’ So, within 3 months we bought this Albert Castiglia record from Ruf Records and we had to put it out and it was like okay well now we need a lot of money (ha); hire real publicists and radio promotion. And so it was all of a sudden trial by fire.”

Mike the seasoned veteran knew the drill. “I mean luckily I’ve been around, I know.” But, the scale of it all was overwhelming and the cost was concerning.

“Every time we spent more money I was like oh, my God, how we gonna make money? You know I don’t have any money, I’m just doing the work and I keep thinking: how we ever gonna get paid? We’re not gonna ever make any money (haha). This is terrible, this is terrible, no no. And finally I just gave in to it and was like alright we’re running a record label apparently and that’s that. And I mean I’m totally committed now, we’re all in. And that record went on to win the 2020 Rock Blues Album of the Year at the Blues Music Awards.”

As with most things over the last 2 years Covid had a huge impact. The wind in the sails of Gulf Coast Records suddenly dropped. But, Mike Zito the eternal upbeat positive kept it rolling and the record label expanded including signing a big fish: Mike Zito.

“After Masterpiece it was like well okay let’s dive in and we started diving in. And then of course Covid hit and that made things horrible, but we kept putting out records. You know we’ve made mistakes, we’ve learned. I’m very fortunate we had some finances to work with, but I feel like right now in 2022 we’ve got a really good handle on what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. And now I’m on the label. I put my first Gulf Coast Records album out last Summer with Resurrection. And I don’t mean that I’m a huge deal but (chuckling) I’m the biggest deal we got going around here. You know I need to be on the label cause when I go on tour and I’m sellin’ my record on my label I’m promoting the label. The record label’s on tour when I’m on tour and that’s what we need. It’s made a big difference in 6 months, you know, huge.”

imageMike’s first Gulf Coast Records release was 2021’s Resurrection. “I think Resurrection is a good idea of a Mike Zito record for whatever that means.” Mike, reveling in independence, boasts “that’s just what I sound like when I’m makin’ my own music you know.” But Mike the entertainer is always thinking of his fans, balancing his stretching and more experimental side with his passionate and highly skilled Blues.

Resurrection, I had it all in my mind; let’s just keep pushin’ and doing something’. I had David Z to help me make it sound fresh and new and mix the shit out of it. You know, give it his treatment. At the same time I knew in 6 months I’m gonna put this live record out and I’m gonna re-record all of my Blusier material off of Ruf Records on 1 live album. It’s more like those are fan favorites that we play all the time. I wanted a copy of them on my label for one. And for two I wanted a Blusier outing. You know what’s funny we make a new studio album, we’ll get 3 songs off the new album into the show. That’s as many as I can get (haha). Because the people want to hear, you know I’ve got 18 albums, they want to hear all these other songs. So when we’re playing live it’s more of a Blues Rock show. That was kinda what the deal was, to stretch on the studio album, kinda bring it back in on the live album.”

And stretch they did. The centerpiece of Resurrection is a blistering rendition of the Blind Faith classic “Presence of the Lord.” With drums that sound like their in the Grand Canyon and an extended Rocking outro, Zito’s “Presence” turns the low key originals lament on its ear. Zito again shows his artistic values for, as he would say, pushing and stretching. What the listener can enjoy as a fresh unique perspective.

“I had somebody ask me ‘why did you do it so bombastic?’ We did record it at first and we did it like the original. And it was good, it was nice. But, I had some time and I listened to it and I was like why would you want to listen to me do this when you can hear the great Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton do this? We can’t do it as good as them. I mean you can’t be better than those before you, but we can do something different. We should re-record this and let’s like rock it like YEAH like we’re excited you know (chuckles). And I’m happy that we did that because that’s me, that’s my style and again I feel like why would we ever copy somethin’ when you can listen to the original?”

Zito adds: “we play ‘Presence of the Lord’ every night!”

Mike Zito and Gulf Coast Records are now united. The Gulf Coast roster is stacked. Castiglia has a new studio record coming out. A follow up to Kat Riggins’ 2020 Soul Rock fever dream Cry Out is on the way. Zito released his outstanding double live album Blues for the Southside recorded in his hometown of St. Louis. Castiglia and Zito are hitting the road as the Blood Brothers tour all year. Including Campanella, Dave Kalz and IBC winner Kevin Burt, Gulf Coast is a diverse and eccentric crew. Allowing artists the freedom to stretch, to realize their dreams and make manifest their realities, Gulf Coast sets a standard for creativity. This is lived by its endlessly creative and humble founder and producer:

“I was convinced by Ruf Records ‘bout 2010 to produce my first record, like professionally. And I had never done that before professionally. I didn’t know that I could do it. I mean I’d been making my own albums since I was in high school. Rented machines and 4 track recorders, tell my friends I was goin’ into the studio. And over the weekend I’d figure out how to write my songs and record ‘em and mix ‘em down to tapes and bring the tapes to my friends. Then I did all my own releases, CDs, from 1997 on up, for a long time. So I thought oh okay, then I started producing. I was enjoying it, I love recording, I love makin’ music.”

To find out where Mike is playing near you be sure to check out his website at https://www.mikezito.com

To find out more about Gulf Coast Records visit https://www.gulfcoastrecords.net

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