Michael McDermott: not fade away

In the era of technological babble and white noise, it’s easy to lose track of what’s important in the world of music. Any schmoe with an internet connection can hastily blog and immediately publish for hundreds, thousands, to see. Almost a game of luck, having a rock-solid internet presence in the land of amateur sleuths and critics. I find it refreshing to find one that has survived it all. Naturally, (being generationally challenged) it’s tragic to think of what I missed, musically, that came before me and what I’m forced to endure in the aughts. It’s important for me to remember the end all, be all—it’s not so much what I’m forced to endure, but that I must sift through to discover the greats. It’s not over. It’s never over. The cultural clash of internet savages competing for YouTube super-stardom has certainly cluttered the inter-web but the folk-rock gods like Michael McDermott keep dreams alive. A new generation calls for a fresh perspective on music, granted. But the artistic genius of singer-songwriter’s like McDermott remind us exactly why we love what we do. Thank the heavens for it.

McDermott, currently co-front-man for folk-rock-Americana band The Westies, had his rise to fame in the 90s. He had his praises sung, early on, by the likes of Stephen King and Brian Koppelman. It’s easy to imagine the behaviors of a 24-year-old (rock star on the brink of international brilliance) leading to a swift and abrupt fall from grace. Now, McDermott is left to rebuild the empire that is so rightfully his. His story is more empowering than woeful, it’s for all those struggling for answers, searching for a light at the end of an endlessly dark tunnel. Rise, fall, rise, McDermott has the precipitous task of re-inventing his image and his sound in a new decade of music. The trends have changed and the expectations are higher, as the industry has become immeasurably more accessible. Thankfully, his talent is of the lasting kind. Everlasting.

Fascinatingly beautiful and tragic, his story. The world at his fingertips, McDermott joins fellow band mates Heather Horton (Vocals, Fiddle, Ball and Chain), John Pirruccelo (Pedal, Lap, Mandolin, Guitar), Robert Dicke (Drums), Dan Ingenthron (Bass, Keys), Chris Merrill (Bass), and Danny Mitchell (Piano). McDermott gathered this ragtag band of vagabonds while he was stationed in Nashville, the chemistry and camaraderie is palpable. The Westies have invited you to join their family. Blood, sweat, tears, and all. A group that is clearly more suited for large-scale arenas, it’s important to remember this is a new start, a new journey, for McDermott. And I prefer this version. This fantastic man and his accolades, taking on the daunting task of rebuilding and reconstructing what is sure to be a long and illustrious career, without any real qualms or legitimate fears. Trust.

I had a chat with Michael McDermott before his set. What’s to follow is a tale of resurrection, humility, and the everlasting love of rock.

I’m interested in the transition you’ve made in this new age of music. Music is over-saturating the masses, being pumped in from all angles. How has that affected you? You came up in an era where musicians were being discovered in coffee shops, it was organic. 

It’s a very different landscape than what it was, as everybody knows. I think for me, back in the day so-to-speak, I kind of believed you would be found out. If people were successful, people found them. I don’t think it was an easier rise, but I think there was less clutter. There was less of a cacophony of sound. Now, there’s just this incredible wall… where any guy with a guitar and a computer is vying for positions that were reserved for people that navigated their way through the industry. You know, found their way to their position. Now, it’s like there’s one watering hole in the desert and everyone is starving of thirst. And, now, anytime you get thirsty…it’s like I’m never going to get a drink of that water.  Not only do you battle the great guys, the ones I consider my peers—Jason Isbell, David Gray, or Ryan Adams—not only do I have to compete with that, I have to compete with the guy sitting in the car next to me right now…who’s probably writing a song on his iPhone (laughs). It’s different, and it’s hard. I think it’s much harder. Obviously back in the day, when I was signed, people gave it their all. It almost became an urban legend, where labels made you do things you didn’t want to do. Well, they give you a lot of money to be able to afford the life you choose. But I never felt like I totally compromised myself artistically. Sure, they would make suggestions, but I was never whored out. In any job, you’re going to find things that you aren’t necessarily psyched to do. I don’t care who you are. But we do these things, because ultimately we care about what we do. That’s part of the job.

So how are you using that social media platform to promote The Westies?

My manager, Randy Miller, he has a better grasp on all that. He’s definitely more in tune with certain avenues. I remember when things started going south, people were saying, “You gotta’ get people on your mailing list.” I was young and playing shows, I didn’t want to walk around table to table picking up these little placards with people’s home address and email, and I regret that now. I mean, we could have had a really big database. It could have been, so… this Westies thing is weird, because it really is a new band. I don’t want to burn it all down, but I don’t mind tearing myself down and starting all over again. I’m very nervous, but I’m very optimistic about it.

Second wind. That has to be a term that carries a lot of meaning for you. You’ve been in the industry for a long time, and you’ve seen all aspects of fame and failure. What’d it take you to refresh and restart?

It’s a doggedness, really. I mean, you have to have an irrational outlook on things. Because, really, if you were a pragmatist, you’d pack it in (laughs). But listen, I’m a Cubs fan. Every year, I’m optimistic! And I guess it’s that way with records too.

You grew up on the South Side and you’re a cubs fan? (Laughs) I don’t think I’m going to print that. 

Yeah, yeah. I’m a rebel too, so…(laughs). But, it was hard not to get discouraged. Every success story is riddled with failures and, I think, what I always tell myself is the old adage: “If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got”. So, I’ve been trying to do the same thing, thinking I’m reinventing the wheel…but I’m not. The Westies is a new avenue, trying something different, man. Yeah, I make a living, and it’s okay. I’m happy with it. But is it making the money I want it to? No, it isn’t. And that’s the scary thing about The Westies, it isn’t making the money that I would normally make. It’s hard. I’m paying a lot of people, when I could be touring by myself. But, now there’s a kid involved, and four other members of the band. It’s daunting, this year I’m looking at, how I’m going to afford it all. But money is only a small part of it, we’ll figure it out. I’m not going to be discouraged by money. Back in the day, you didn’t have to worry about it as much. There was always a van, or a place to stay. Now, you have to worry about it every day. It’s more artistic life. There’s something empowering and honest about that. And to find a bunch of your mates that will do it with you? That’s really something special.

You named The Westies after a bunch of Irish toughs. Hell’s Kitchen and Irish gangsters…that’s terrifying. Tell me more about those romantic notions of terror that inspired you. It’s exciting and thrilling. How did you come to that?

(Laughs) Well, I lived in New York. At the end of the Westies, right in the middle of Hell’s Kitchen. It pulled me back to moments that I was fascinated by. I was put in jail. And I was nearly murdered in New York, had a gun pulled and everything. And I always thought that was my entry into the world, why people were sent to come after me. There’s an emotion of real desperation when that happens, and many times that’s a breaking point. There’s two ways you can go, and the reason people think that has always been very fascinating to me. Looking at television, it’s fascinating to a lot of people. Right around the end of the Westies days, it stopped when I was younger, I met some of the people, and it was a rare moment. [The end of the Westies era] was a lot like being in Chicago after Capone died. Like I just missed something, and I knew it. They killed so many people and they thought they were a very organized operation…but, really, they were like 12 tough guys. And I hung out with those 12 tough guys (laughing). I mean, I didn’t murder anybody. But, it was easy to see what these idiots were able to do. The jeopardy was lost on me. The things I write about, and why I think Stephen King is such a big fan, talks a lot about certain darker parts of the psyche. This was an avenue for me to write about that. Of course, you have the songs about lighter stuff and relationship stuff but, I always had these weird murder songs. And to think, that’s maybe how I fucked up Michael McDermott. I just referred to myself in the third person.

(Laughs) That’s okay, I support it. With trends surfacing the way they are, it’s clear a majority of the masses enjoy beat driven music. Your lyrics are powerful. How do you write? Do you need powerful emotions to be able to create your prose? 

I’m not spending the amount of time that I’d like…but it’s definitely lately. I mean, I can write all day, but I don’t think it would mean much. It would be tripe. And my wife knows at this point that I can be a dick for a couple days, and I don’t know why. I’m just kind of antsy, and then I get it. I need to go. Just do it. And it’s great. A lot of people don’t approve of that kind of writing method, they work harder at it. It’s hard to find a time…it’s literally, lately, been whenever the light goes off. There’s really no rhyme or reason to it, and I wish there was.

What can you tell me about your transition from the Chicago music scene to LA? It seems that people tend to glamorize Los Angeles, but there’s seriously something special about Chicago and what it has to offer. 

Well, I will say…there’s more opportunity out there. Let’s say you and I are having a beer before the show tonight at Schuba’s (Chicago’s best bar on Southport and Belmont), and someone sits at the table next to us. And you know, you introduce me, or I recognize someone, and you mention you work for the press—now, if we were in LA, that guy I know is probably a music supervisor for movies. The guy you know probably works at a creative agency. Everybody is in the industry, so there are no credentials to be made, as opposed to you and I having a beer at Schuba’s. It’s outrageous, it’s mad. Yeah…I didn’t love it, and I didn’t hate it as much as I thought. In Europe, the music industry was much bigger when there were labels there…now there’s only a couple. And, you know, LA is LA. Everyone pushes to go out there, the land of milk and honey. I think people still have that perception of it. But, then again, it’s that watering hole image I had. Everyone is a dog chasing their tail around the yard, waiting for someone to throw them a bone. Sure, there’s more opportunity, but there’s also a lot more competition. The numbers are still against you.

It’s pretty impressive that you still have such a large fan base, watching every step and misstep along the way, waiting for your return. Well, I guess not “return” because you never left…

(Laughs) Yeah, I don’t think I lost anything musically. Well, there was the jail thing that fucked me up for a while. And, then, being a national act…I think that’s why I became a drug addict. It was hard to deal with. But then you dust yourself off and you fight harder. It’s about getting back up.

Tell me about touring with your wife and fellow band mate, Heather Horton. How is it to be with your family?

It’s great! I mean, shit, it’s challenging. We actually got married on tour. We had 11 shows and 12 days in Italy, so we took that day off to get married. We had our daughter the next time. It’s been challenging, because you really have to be a parent. And it’s hard when you’re worried about what nanny is taking over, and what is she going to eat. It’s harder for Heather, obviously, than it is for me. But, when she’s a little older I think she’ll understand. It’s the most challenging thing of my life, making sure they’re both happy. And cared for.

Last question. I’m really interested in your alter ego, Johnny Darkstar. All around badass. How did you come to be playing under a different guise?

(Laughs) I don’t know! Johnny Darkstar didn’t just happen. He was grappled with. There’s something really liberating about it. Heather would be playing shows around town and I would go in and nobody will know me, and it’s nice. It’s fun. I was going to be Johnny Darkstar for The Westies all the time, but then my manager needed the Michael McDermott thing to let people in on it, and now it’s just kind of stupid (laughs). Johnny’s taken a bit of a back seat. But, I was excited, I was totally ready to go into character and never be Michael McDermott again.

I dig it. He’s a Hell’s kitchen, Irish tough guy. Ready to kick some ass. 


Editor, Holly Jones, (wizened vixen she is) passed the reigns and a bevy of questions to this humble writer for a look into the mind of a Chicago legend. My first plunge into the arctic waters of true, folk-rock, madness. And ,without much consternation, I put all my faith in Michael McDermott and The Westies. With true Chicago loyalty, I salute this group and anxiously await their immortality.   

-Cole Scott, junior editor, OnTour Magazine

Stay tuned for a full write-up on The Westies’ live performance at Schubas. Posting just as soon as our junior editor returns from cloud nine.

One Comment

  1. Do not miss this guy and this new band when they hit your town. Right now, there is no better singer/songwriter than Michael McDermott Murphy, and Heather, with the band, add a wonderful richness to his musical storytelling. Pick up their EP on iTunes now, and see what all of this righteous fuss is all about!