If at the age of 13, you are so good at guitar that actor/”Blues Brother” Dan Aykroyd gives you the nickname “Monster Mike,” it must mean that musical fame is inevitable. That sure was the case for Mike Welch. The career that followed established Welch as one of the most sought-after sidemen in the world of blues. While he’s spent the majority of his time with New England-based Sugar Ray and the Bluetones, Welch still found time to record with Shemekia Copeland, Ronnie Earl, Danielle Nicole, Duke Robillard, and Johnny Winter. Welch left the Bluetones in 2017 to focus on his partnership with Mike Ledbetter, which led to countless nominations and awards in the blues genre.
Over the past few years Welch has battled long COVID, a condition that found him spending almost all of 2022 wondering if he would ever play music again. Fortunately, fellow musician Kid Andersen, and guitarist/label owner Mike Zito gave him the inspiration he needed to change course and make what he considers to be the most personal album of his career.
Nothing But Time dropped last month. It was recorded at Kid Andersen’s Greaseland Studios in San Jose, California. Backed by an all-star band that includes two-time Grammy winner Jerry Jemmott on bass, Welch and company deliver an album of material that sounds fresh, vibrant, and of the moment. Even when he covers legacy artists like Buddy Guy and Robert Johnson, Welch takes on these versions with ease.
Perhaps the great surprise on the album is Welch’s cover of the George Harrison song “I Me Mine.” It demonstrates a sense of daring that comes from years performing on the road, and from months battling a debilitating disease.
Copper caught up with Welch to talk about what it’s been like being part of the Gulf Coast Records family, what Kid Andersen brought to this project as a performer and producer, and how Welch’s battle with COVID has changed his outlook, his approach, and ultimately, his music.
Ray Chelstowski: Gulf Coast Records is on a roll. What excited you the most about becoming part of this label roster?
Mike Welch: I’ve known Mike Zito (label founder) as a musician for a long time and every interaction has been warm and positive. He was just someone I wanted to be working with. This record is a bit of a comeback because I’ve been sick for a long time with Long COVID. So I knew that when I came back I wanted to work with people I could trust because it was going to require a leap of faith.
RC: How did you know that you were physically ready for a return?
MW: The interesting thing is that I’m still figuring a lot of that out as I go. The thing I knew was that I needed to come back, and that even if it was a physical struggle it was going to be untenable continuing to not play. I also knew that I had a record in me and it was really Kid Andersen who pushed me to get out and make it. Then when the label was willing to get behind it and put it out, it made me realize that now was the time.
RC: How did you approach this record? Were these songs that you had in hand or did they come out of new writing sessions?
MW: Some of these songs have been around for a long time. In fact, [there are] a few I have recorded with other bands, albeit those versions are substantially different than the [ones on Nothing But Time]. When I first decided to make the record I was suffering from a case of writer’s block, so that’s why I decided to revisit some of these songs. As soon as I did, I started writing new songs as well, and now I’m much more in the flow of being a present-tense songwriter. While I don’t have concrete plans for the next record, I’m still writing more, and regularly. That has me really excited about what’s next because I know that I’ll have plenty of material at hand when I’m ready.
Monster Mike Welch. Courtesy of Jo Welch.
RC: What did Kid Andersen bring to the project production-wise, and did you consider having him play guitar?
MW: That actually never came up. And Bob Welsh, who played keyboards on the record, is a phenomenal guitar player as well. He’s played both [instruments] in Elvin Bishop’s band. It got to the point where I ended up asking my drummer if he could play guitar better than me, because I found myself surrounded by really good musicians who also play guitar.
In terms of production, Kid and I come from the same musical base, and [because of that], so many things can go unspoken about how things should sound. That allowed me to trust that he had a handle on all of these sonic decisions so that I could concentrate on playing and singing. Although this is the first record I’ve made in some time where I didn’t handle production, I feel as though it’s the most personal record I’ve ever made. Part of that is because I could trust Kid with all of the things that are usually minor distractions from the actual process of expressing yourself. That allowed me to be much more present in my performance.
RC: What did you like most about recording at Kid’s Greaseland Studios in San Jose?
MW: As a musician, Kid’s really good at setting up headphone mixes [in the recording studio] so [that] it actually sounds like the record you’re going to be playing on. He also had some tricks set up where I could be singing live in the room with my own mic and not have to worry about sound bleeding into other instruments. A lot of the record includes live vocals and that’s good for morale and keeping folks inspired. He’s just very thoughtful and ensures that things sound natural.
RC: Did you use any special gear on this record?
MW: Well, the studio is in California and I live in Boston so I was flying in, which meant that I only brought one guitar, and a few pedals. On “Walking to You Baby,” I used the Japanese reissue Strat with a USA Custom Guitars neck and Lindy Fralin pickups that I’ve had since 1992, through Kid Andersen’s vintage tweed [Fender] Bassman that he keeps at his Greaseland Studio. [The Strat is strung] with Curt Mangan 9-42 [gauge] strings. Kid keeps multiple cameras in the studio for live streaming purposes, and we were lucky they captured this live-in-the-studio performance that we added horns to later.
RC: You cover Buddy Guy and Robert Johnson on the record, which seems natural. But you also covered George Harrison.
MW: I’m a huge Beatles fan. That’s how I got into music, and I got it in my head about a year ago that “I Me Mine” would work as an Otis Rush-type blues shuffle. It seemed so obvious that I actually Googled it to see if a million bands had already covered it, and it seems that no one has. I had a moment where I was certain that Eric Clapton had to have recorded it. But figuring out the approach to that song alone unlocked a bunch of different angles for the entire record.
RC: You come directly out of a very specific New England kind of approach to the blues. But you’ve really developed your own sound as a solo artist.
MW: That’s really nice to hear, although I can hear all of those influences in every note. I did spend 15 years or so playing on and off with Sugar Ray and the Bluetones, so that will be in my blood, regardless of what I choose to do with the rest of my life.
Header image courtesy of Jo Welch.