Danish singer Mike Tramp’s career has spanned more than five decades, first in his country of Denmark with pop band Mabel, then in the U.S. with White Lion and Freak of Nature. He’s lived in Tasmania, Australia and Indonesia and now back in Denmark and he’s releasing a new single that has been entered to represent Denmark in the Eurovision song competition. We talked with Mike recently about all that and more.
How long have you been back in Denmark now?
Ten years ago, I started opening the door to working back in Denmark, doing shows and recording and building up friendships with old and new friends in the music business here and the last eight solo albums have been recorded here.
You recorded with your brother Dennis when you were thirteen for EMI that must have been a big deal.
Looking back at it I had nothing to measure it against. When you’re thirteen and it’s 1974 in Denmark, a country with one national TV channel and three national radio stations, and all you’re doing is playing soccer and hanging around with your friends, you don’t have that dream at all.
When we got approached by a strange fellow that lived in our apartment building and he hands us a tape recorder and lyrics to three songs, we were still just thirteen and fourteen years old, going to school and no real plans in life. I don’t think we ever paid any attention to what it was we were a part of.
Eventually though I started getting into some of the teen magazines and then in 1976, I got discovered by my first band Mabel, with the three other guys well established, almost ten years older than me. So when I passed the audition which I didn’t know was an audition, I packed a little sports bag and left my mom’s house and moved into that house about a half hour outside of Copenhagen and since that day I’ve been on the road.
So you really just fell into the business?
Yeah, and from the day I fell into it, I took it deadly serious and there was never a single moment where I saw this as a party or vacation. I saw it more the way a professional athlete would look at it. My brother and I grew up thinking about maybe being a professional soccer player and those were our heroes. I also knew that I couldn’t manage my life in the neighbourhood and also be a teen star, so I said goodbye to the neighbour and my friends and didn’t really open the door again until ten or fifteen years later.
Your pop band Mabel was the Danish entry in Eurovision in 1978.
Denmark was out of Eurovision for twelve years and suddenly they decided to get back in. Mabel were in the recording studio finishing our second album, a pretty middle of the road rock album in the style of a lighter version of Status Quo or Deep Purple, the bands we were looking up to back then.
So here comes the guy from the record company and says listen, Denmark is back in Eurovision and I think we should submit a song. So he starts listening to the album and he can’t find anything on the album but then this song shows up and it’s sort of like a folk song, very much in the vein of the song 39 from Queen’s Night at the Opera album. We decide that’s the song and we write Danish lyrics for it and submit it and we get selected out of thousands of entries with five other bands.
From the day we start this, we go on constant compromise. It’s a very important part in my life because the compromises we live by for the next year and a half is what destroys the whole thing because now you have this band that has an international dream suddenly doing the total opposite.
The next album we did took us even further from where we said we were going to go and we started a rescue mission to get back to where we were. I start becoming a little bit more the voice in the band and now I start writing all the songs and start steering the band in a very light version of hard rock.
We ended up leaving Denmark tired of all the hysteria and putting down by the press and moved to Spain and that’s where the rock revived in our set. We met an American in Spain that said we could live in his house in New York and he’d be our manager and that’s all I needed to hear.
When we arrived in New York in 1982 we were called Lion and playing several clubs in the New York area and for the first time in our career, knew what it felt like to be a rock band. In November of that year, we played in Brooklyn at the club L’Amour,
I’m sitting in the dressing room and this guitar player comes in and says you gotta check this amp out. So he plugs in and I’m thinking we’re so good, this guy’s going to make a fool of himself and then for the next half hour he went through every Van Halen guitar solo. I’m thinking this is obviously the guy I need to play with and it was Vito Bratta and that’s how White Lion came to be.
There is a great Van Halen story in the middle of all this isn’t there.
During the time we were in Spain, I told the record company I’m going to kill the name of the band and we’re going to start under a new name, and they went along with it. I had started reading a lot of these English rock magazines and it was the start of the new wave of British heavy metal and the kids in the studded leather jackets and I sat there and thought Studs. Almost like the classic Spinal Tap story where he draws Stonehenge on the napkin, I sat there and drew the album cover with those two studs crossing each other like two German hand grenades from WWII and I thought this could be bad ass.
At the same time, Van Halen is about to arrive in Spain for promotion for the release of Fair Warning. We were with the same record company and I tell the president of the record company I really need to meet these guys, is that possible? He said, I can do one better, you are going to go to the airport and pick up the band.
So here I am in the airport in Madrid and I have blonde hair to my shoulders, leather jacket, Van Halen T-shirt, I’m the only one who looks like that at the airport and the first one who comes out is David Lee Roth. To me he looked twenty feet tall, the long blonde hair, the dark sun glasses, I was scared to shits. He looks around and comes over to me and says, “Who are you?” I said, “My name is Mike, the record company sent me to pick you guys up.”, and he says, “You got a joint?” In a little while the other guys come out and I actually end up in the limo with Eddie going to the hotel. I must have asked Eddie about fifty questions about guitars and amps.
There is a legendary interview in Guitar Player Magazine with Eddie where he talks about all the things he did to his pickup and his amp and supposedly there is a follow up story where almost everybody destroyed their amp and guitar trying to imitate these things. Dipping their pickup in wax, burning it, melting it, changing the voltage in their amp. So I was throwing all these questions at him and he answered every single one of them.
Not too long ago I sent a message through someone who was going to interview Wolfgang. I wanted just to tell him how great that was for me meeting his father at that time. I met Eddie many times later on in life and became pretty good friends with him, The first meeting in the limousine, turned into spending three days with the band because there were no fans there, they were just doing TV and radio, but it was on the final night that I said, this is the time and I knocked on Dave’s door and brought a couple albums with me. I was under the impression that all I needed to do was hand Dave my album and I would be the next support act of the Van Halen tour. So he sits there and looks at the cover and says, “Studs? That ain’t going to work in America; they’ll think you’re the next Village People”.
There was a period right after White Lion with your band Freak of Nature where you had a much heavier sound. Were you just trying to adapt to the changes in music with the emergence of grunge at that time?
Well yes and no, it’s almost like a two part answer. The end of White Lion was almost like I was following an unknown natural evolution inside. I’m not the only artist in music history who departed from where they were from.
Vito and I had spent a lot of time on the Mane Attraction album, especially because we had not had that time when we made the Big Game album. In that time as we’re getting into the end of the eighties era you definitely could sense that the interest in big hair, the high vocals, the flashy videos and tight pants was not that hot anymore.
After we finished Mane Attraction, we could feel the door kind of close in our face from MTV, we were not on their guest list anymore. So when I finally made the decision, we were doing a tour of America with a new drummer and bass player and wanted to test the band out.
We did a three week club tour on the east coast and the night before the final show I said to Vito, “You know what? After tomorrow night it’s going to be the final show.” I swear to God, Vito just said, “Ok.” And we didn’t speak about it for another fifteen years.
The most interesting thing is, the following day when I went back to L.A. and Vito went to New York, no manager called us, no record company, no T-shirt company, no publicist, and all the people who took a large share of our income. Even though we were not number one, we were still a band that was generating a good amount of income.
So here I am the next two days after the final show and there’s silence. Usually when Vito and I would have a bit of an argument or somebody else in the band, we always used to get the phone call the next day from our Tony Soprano manager saying, “Hey, what are you guys doing! Do I have to come down and smack your face?” and then it all fell back into place. But that day it was silence, but also from Atlantic Records. We were not the number one band on that label but we still sold millions of records and they were still making money on us and we still had more albums to do. So I was left with the feeling that maybe someone could have convinced me to keep going, but nothing.
So basically on the way home I’m already forming the band Freak of Nature in my head. Like David Lee Roth says, “Hit the ground running.” A week later one of my friends from Denmark, a guitar player, comes over and we start writing songs and it instantly sounds different. When you look at that time, late 91, and look at what albums start coming out at that time, it has an influence on you.
When we got together at the end of 92 to record the first album we were caught between listening to Pearl jam and Soundgarden and also Thin Lizzy and UFO because we were all classic rock fans. I said I want to do the dual guitars. I want to incorporate a bit of Thin Lizzy. I got a great band together because Johnny Haro, the drummer, came in with that sort of Chili Peppers vibe and it became a product from that.
You’ve come full circle now with your new single, Everything is Alright going up against seven other acts to represent Denmark at Eurovision. You didn’t plan this did you?
No and yeah, I’m one of eight acts that has nothing to do with me which is also one of the reasons. For the first time in my life, I am the bad boy in something. White Lion had always been a good band and I’ve always kept a pretty clean image and not ripped up any hotel rooms or anything like that.
Now I’m not just a veteran but I look at six of the seven other acts who are classic Eurovision where you try to write a song for something specific. I’m there today because I’m able to go in without compromising. I’ve not written a song for the competition, I’ve written a traditional Mike Tramp song. I’m going to walk on stage like I would be playing any club or stage around the world. It’s forty three years since I’ve played there last. A large number of my six million fellow Danes know my name, very few know my music. This is what I want to leave them with, this is what I want them to remember me as.
Tell me about the new single.
All songs that I have written come together within the first half hour. Obviously I’m not Peter Gabriel, I’m not going to write an eight minute prog song because to me the basic thing is, can this song be sung around a campfire by somebody who can’t sing. I’m the kind of person that sits with a guitar and the second I strum the first chord I’m singing the melody even though I don’t know what I’m going to be singing.
When Vito and I started writing for White Lion we wrote the ten songs that’s on the album, we didn’t write twenty five songs. We wrote it unconsciously like a book chapter by chapter. We made the decision when we were writing that we didn’t start writing a song if we didn’t believe that it was the greatest song in the world.
When I start writing now, it’s usually because it’s time for me to write something new, it’s not this thing that I can’t sit still. Sometimes I need a break from myself because I’ve also said the sound of Mike Tramp is pretty much similar to my other songs. They depart from each other but they all represent who I am and they’re not that far away from each other. That is on purpose, it represents me one hundred percent who I am as a song writer and when I started writing the first solo album that’s what I decided. I am the main character in all the songs.
Everything is Alright comes in a period of time when I’m not writing and when I finally decide to give it a shot. First of all, a song needs to be three minutes and the first thing I always do is see if maybe I can get an intro or theme. So when I looked around I had just put something on the phone and it said song for Bella which is my daughter who also sings and I thought I can use just the verse of the song one hundred percent the way it is today and then when I played it, it instantly told me where I was going to go and I wrote the bridge and the chorus and the song was there. I recorded everything at home here and then went into the studio and recorded the drums with a drummer.
Is there an album coming out as well with this?
No there’s not, so I guess the next couple weeks will decide a lot of things. I have released a lot of music in the last ten years. I will say this honestly to you there is no doubt over the next couple months I could easily write an album, I know that I have the music inside of me and it will probably come very easily.
The problem is, I feel it’s too soon because it’s more of the same, in a positive way. I have said this and I’m not sure it’s going to come true but it’s almost as if the next album could possibly be a project where we would return more to the way Freak of Nature recorded. It’s not going to sound like Freak of Nature and it’s definitely not going to be that hard but where I would be jumping on board with a little bit of the vibe of the song and start it. It will not be Mike Tramp campfire singing or song writing, it will be something else. It would be something I would love to be part of. It’s not going to be a touring band because there’s no space for it anymore, there’s not enough money for it but it would be nice to explore something and maybe give the fans a break, so if I came back with a new album, it would feel like I’ve been gone for a while.
Keep up-to-date with Mike at MikeTramp.dk