When Danish/American Hard Rock masters White Lion unleashed their sophomore effort Pride (1987) upon an unsuspecting populace, few could have anticipated the impact they would make. Buoyed by two top ten singles (i.e., “Wait” and “When The Children Cry”), heavy MTV rotation and opening slots on tours with AC/DC, Kiss and Ozzy Osbourne, the Michael Wagener-Produced opus was quickly certified double Platinum with sales in excess of two million copies within the US alone. Although the group’s initial reign was eventually all too brief, the ensuing solo career of oft-charismatic frontman Mike Tramp would prove almost immediately prove fruitful with the release of Capricorn in 1998. Now, with Second Time Around (2020), his latest–and quite possibly greatest–offering to date, he at long last appears poised for the world-wide recognition he so rightfully deserves.
Todd: For the uninitiated, how would you describe the songwriting processes for Second Time Around? Am I correct in understanding the entirety of the material contained herein was initially conceived over a decade ago?
Mike: “It was done in a similar way except for that these songs come from a period from 2005 to 2009. It’s from a stop in my solo career where I’d been lured into starting a new version of White Lion I started out calling it ‘Tramp’s White Lion’ and then, bit by bit, I basically began using the full name again. And of course, I’m the one making the decision and I’m the one that put the new band together, therefore I can’t really blame anyone except for myself. …I noticed as soon as I got going on it that there was a reason why I broke up the band at the end of ’91, and that was because I was done with this kind of stuff. But after my third solo album, nothing was really happening and I wasn’t really moving anywhere with anything. I was playing some small places around Europe and things like that, but even with the small places, nobody was really paying that much attention, so I was vulnerable and gave in to the idea. During that period, whenever I would have a break from touring with White Lion, Mark II, I would return to who I have now become, which is basically just me writing these songs. At the time, I was going into the studio and recording, and then putting the songs aside, so all these songs ended up on different hard drives. …I just kept moving on and never going back. But then, and about a year and a half ago, I started putting four or five of those drives together onto a single massive hard drive and began sorting things out. …Once I opened them up in my studio, I started realizing that there were some very important songs there and also some songs that I could easily call some of my best songs ever. My plan was that after that after Stray From The Flock (2019) was released, this would be the next project I would put together. A lot of the original recordings were used for after they were touched up, which explains the title. …It’s not very often in my career that my partner and I decide to outline something we wish we could do over, but in this situation, I got the chance to not only do it over, but also perfect it to a certain extent. And I wanted my audience to know that.”
Todd: As far as the ‘touching up’ is concerned, was a great deal of editing and re-recording ultimately necessary?
Mike: “Not really. Sometimes, when you return to a song, you might decide that it just has one course too many. …There can be a lot of pressure when you go in to do an album, but in this case, we weren’t pressured for success. I now have that time because I’m the one who decides when I’m done with an./; album. I’m the one who picks the release date, so I have the time to be able to look at a song and make it right instead of mixing a song and then having it ready for manufacturing the following week. …It’s nice to sit and be able to give things time.”
Todd: At this point, do you feel you control your own destiny? I can only imagine how incredible that must feel.
Mike: “That is one hundred percent correct. …You definitely couldn’t say that about White Lion during the ’80’s when we had the big record deals and were playing all the big shows. It’s funny because I really do control my destiny, but at the same time, you’re also working out of your garage. This is a mom-and-pop store thing, really. Yes, it’d be great for me to be able to say ‘Yes, you’re correct, man. I can control it all’, but at the same time, I’m also controlling a career that if I’m lucky, will sell seventy-five hundred to ten thousand copies worldwide, ya know? But the reward is just so enormous. It’s been incredible to hear from so many people. Even a lot of the interviews have been responding to the depth of the new album. People are actually getting the point I’m trying to make and what it is I’m doing and what I’m writing about. In the end, the reward isn’t from the Gold and Platinum albums I don’t have on the wall. …They’re all in cardboard boxes somewhere in my storage room.”
Todd: Overall, how does the material on Second Time Around and Stray From The Flock differ from what you did on Cobblestone Street? Regardless of such differences, each record has a stripped-down, almost rootsy vibe.
Mike: “Cobblestone Street was the first album recorded in the neighborhood that I come from. It was going as far back as I can to my own roots. …When you explain my story to some people, they only see me as the guy as who sang “Wait”, “When The Children Cry” and (the White Lion cover of the Golden Earring classic) “Radar Love”. I was raised on Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and a lot of other Danish Folk artists. I’m a Folk artist at heart. Not really in the sense of my heroes, but I grew up with just my voice and a guitar, singing for my friends at the youth club or whatever. That is my truest DNA. My true DNA is not Ted Nugent or Van Halen, regardless if that’s what I wanted it to become later on. When you strip Mike Tramp from absolutely everything and put that guitar in his hands, you get Cobblestone Street. And then, when you look at my next album, you see me moving once step up and slowly take my time to move back to where I started in ’96 with Capricorn. From now on until the day I die, I will just be me and everything I do will be exactly who I am. I will not strive for anything but being true to myself. …With Capricorn, I started in the middle, but with Cobblestone Street, I went all the way back to the beginning of how one should start if one wants to start at the beginning of who they are.”
Todd: It must have been so refreshing to finally come full-circle artistically. What precipitated making such a major change? Were you concerned a portion of your fanbase wouldn’t understand the motivations behind it all?
Mike: “It felt phenomenal. When I play live, I tell the story of how I came into my friend’s studio and said ‘I don’t really know what I’m going to do or where to go with this’ and he says ‘We’ve been working on a lot of things together. Usually, you come in with your acoustic guitar, you sit down and then play some songs and then you say ‘Now, can we turn this into ACDC?’ even though you just played a Dylan or Springsteen-inspired song.’ …Then he says ‘How about if you record the songs the way you wrote it?’, so the first song I recorded was “Cobblestone Street”. Then he came out and played a little piano and said ‘Okay, and that’s what we’re going do with the next nine or ten other songs.’ We finished the album like that and it felt really great. Then, when I went out on the road and started playing around the world, I also introduced the White Lion songs in that manner because all the songs that I’ve written in my career comes from that exactly type of songwriting. Whenever I met with (White Lion guitarist) Vito (Bratta) to start working on song ideas, that’s what I would bring to the table. …I didn’t go in there looking to shake my ass. I would come in with a Dylan, Mellencamp, Petty or a Springsteen idea and Vito would be sitting there with his Stratocaster listening to the melody and where it was coming from. Then he’d take the songs in and at the end of the day, out would come the new White Lion songs.”
Todd: Did the success of White Lion, particularly with the impact(s) of Pride and Big Game (1989) become a burden? As a songwriter, how frustrating was it to be forced into replicating the same style over and over again?
Mike: “That’s a great question. Yes and no. Yes, in the way that it’s a story that most don’t know …Pride was originally recorded in ’86 in Germany at the same studio we recorded Fight To Survive (1985). It’s a long story, but the short version is that after we had recorded Fight To Survive in ’84, we signed a massive deal with Elektra Records. Three months later when the album was about to come out, we got a call from our manager saying that they’ve dropped the band. We were like ‘They just signed us, and now they’ve dropped us?’ and he says ‘Yes, but we get to keep the money’. Later, they managed to get the album licensed for Japan, so White Lion’s career actually started in Japan. The albums was eventually imported into Europe and the band started getting onto the charts in Europe. And then it started getting imported in America and suddenly we were there, but we weren’t able to get a new record deal in America. So our manager sent us back over to Germany because he knew a Producer who owned a studio. We don’t have to pay for it all unless we get a record deal, so we came back in the summer of ’86 with Pride. It wasn’t called Pride at that time, but we came back with the album completed. We got picked up in our manager’s Cadillac and we drove from Kennedy Airport to a house in Staten Island. When we arrive, it’s completely silent because, of course, they’d been listening to the album before we got there. I can still remember Vito saying ‘It’s just not good enough’, so we started going back and re-writing a lot of the songs. …The first recording is actually on my limited The Bootleg Series (2004) Box Set as Pride Take One ’86”
Todd: Once the touring cycles for Pride were officially completed, how quickly did the materials that would appear on Big Game all ‘come together‘? How much of it was written while the group was supporting of Pride?
Mike: “Pride was released in the summer of ’87 and we toured it for a year and a half. We played constantly. We played three months with AC/DC, three months with Aerosmith and did our big European and Japan tours. I mean in was just constant. When we come to the end of November ’88, man, we’d been doing shows for so long, ya know? We thought we’re going to take a really big break. Vito and I had not even started to write any new songs. …But then, our manager goes ‘You’ve got to get back into the studio and get an album out or you’re going to be fucking dead’ and we’re like ‘Are you kidding? We’ve been on the road for two years straight. We need to get away from each other. We need to get away from the sound. We need to get away so when we get back, we can actually find the love for this again.’ We had been very fatigued during the final month and a half we played with Stryper. We were just going through the motions. There wasn’t any passion left in it. …So, Vito and I ended up writing Big Game over the course of ten days. It had taken us two years to write Pride. We then had a short Christmas break before we went back into the studio and got working. At that point, we weren’t capable of making the correct decisions. There are a lot of great songs on Big Game like “Little Fighter” and there also some other strong songs, but when we look back at it, it’s really an unfinished album because we didn’t have the time to think it out. But the worst part of it was that although we had the A&R guy from Atlantic Records, one of the most powerful people in the record business, and we had our managers and everything, nobody said anything. …Later on, word came out that when the big cheeses from the record company came out to the studio, they wouldn’t even look at each other. It was like they were saying ‘Why are we letting them do this?’, but no one had the balls to say anything about it. They should have been like ‘All right, guys. We’re shutting down the Production. …You need to take a break and re-focus on this or maybe we just need to take a different approach.”
Todd: In hindsight, why did the group originally come to an end? When I first heard Mane Attraction (1991), I was under the impression–based on “Lights And Thunder” alone–that everything would’ve continued as before.
Mike: “You basically took all the words right out of my mouth. Looking back now, that decision was made at a time when I felt almost immortal. I felt that I was in a strong position where I would continue with something else and have the same success. It was a personal decision on some of the people involved in the band but, it was mainly the record company. We didn’t feel they were on our side anymore and it’s not in my personality to take that shit. At the same time, (bassist) James (‘Jlo’ LoMenzo, later of David Lee Roth, Megadeth and Pride & Glory) and (Anthrax, Cities and Jack Starr) drummer Greg (D’Angelo) left the band after a big European tour. …We had been out on the road for three weeks with an all new rhythm section (bassist Tommy ‘T-Bone’ Caradonna and future Megadeth, Ratt and Suicidal Tendencies drummer Jimmy DeGrasso) testing everything out. At this point, MTV has basically turned their back on not only White Lion, but basically every other ’80’s band and Grunge was quickly starting to come in. There was already a whole different vibe out there, but we were solving a bit of that. It was one of those situations where one thing leads to another and then there was a hasty decision made that nobody fought for. And then I didn’t get a call from my Management and I didn’t get a call from the record company, which was odd because we were still a money-making band that had several records that needed to be made for Atlantic Records. We were still making money for the publishing company and we were still selling T-Shirts, so were still a very successful band. We weren’t on the top of the charts in America, but we had just done a massive European tour and were really strong there as always. We were still selling hundreds of thousands of albums in the US, which today you would give your grandmother for (laughs)”
Todd: Am I correct in assuming you would later regret these decisions? Everything should have been continued.
Mike: “Later on, many years after when Vito and I started talking about these things, we always wondered why nobody called us after a couple days and said ‘Listen, you guys. Let’s take a break here. Let’s take a break and let everybody calm down a bit. And then let’s meet and look at the situation.’ That would have happened if it had been any other type of business …But not one single person fought for this and that really just put more fuel on my fire. It is kind of crazy because basically on the way back from the final show when I flew to L.A. and Vito flew to New York, I’d already put Freak Of Nature together in my head. The whole concept and how it was all going to be built up. …From that day on, I was going to be in total control of making those decisions, ya know?”
Todd: In retrospect, how do you remember your time as a member of Mabel? It’s obviously a portion of your career many outside of Europe are entirely aware of. Was it difficult to move from obscurity to fame so quickly?
Mike: “In reality, you could call it my high school years because I was only fifteen years old. This was at the time when the Bay City Rollers, David Cassidy and The Osmonds were all very popular. …This is the world that I was walking into in Denmark at fifteen years old. I was straight out of not finishing high school, out in a band with three other guys ten years older than me. They were looking for something there and I didn’t have any plans to become a musician. I loved music and I could play some campfire guitar, but I gave no time and no practice into wanting to go that way. I wanted to become an athlete or something like that. …And then one day, I made a life-changing decision that is so drastic compared to where I was coming from and the way I’d grown up. Suddenly, I leave the neighborhood and the way of life that I’ve had and it’s like my past does not exist anymore. …I realized that if I was going to be in a Pop band, have a nice haircut and be in all the teeny pop magazines, I couldn’t return to the tough ass neighborhood that I came from. It’s something that’s been big part of my life that I had to fight to win back later on, of course. But back then, I wasn’t strong enough mentally to be able to share those two worlds. To go out of planning and then the next day return back home and have your friends tease you that you’re in the Pop magazine and that girls are running after you in the street was too much. …I’ve always said I did all my learning and practicing in front of a camera because I was so green and so very young.”