Detroit-born rock ‘n’ roll superstar Mike Skill has been touring for 40 years with The Romantics, the band he co-founded in 1970s Motor City.
He wrote many of their signature songs that have stood the test of time, like “What I Like About You” and “Talking in Your Sleep.”
It shook him up in an industry notorious for being fickle. He did this by being creative and fearless as he set ambitious goals for himself and the band (with Jimmy Marinos launching The Romantics with him).
At 68, Skill continues to play guitar fiercely, sing and write “killer” songs. This is where our conversation started as we talked about his first solo album – “Skill…Mike Skill”, which is now available for digital download on all streaming sites and mikeskill.com, along with CDs and 12 inch vinyl. to come as soon as the pressing plants can catch up with demand. He also confirmed that he would play in Toronto on February 27 with Rick Rat joining him on guitar.
But it all started in Detroit. Skill grew up in a middle-class family on the east side of town. Her father worked as an accountant and her mother worked as a waitress, cashier and at Ford, while raising five children.
Skill, who went to Finney High School, said he developed a love of rock ‘n’ roll from listening in the late 1950s until his older brother was 45. At age 10, Skill was well aware of the release of new Motown music. He decided he wanted to start a band and got his first guitar at 13. The rest is rock ‘n’ roll history.
Today Skill lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and son, Mick. When it comes to his music, he continues to look to Detroit for inspiration. He worked with Pearl Sound Studios in Canton on his new album. His parents are deceased, but he still has a sister and two brothers in Michigan.
Because of the pandemic, he took it off the road, which gave him time to write more songs. Before long, he had seven or eight. He also decided to do his own version of “What I Like About You”.
He recently answered some of my questions about his new album and more. His answers have been edited for space.
QUESTION: This is your first solo album. So why now?
RESPONNSE: I had recorded and mixed a few songs in my studio… during the pandemic (he set up a studio in his son’s old high school outside of Portland. In exchange for space, he donated musical instruments and brought in artists to talk to the students) . We used it in the evening after school ended. I recorded some songs in Chicago with producer Mike Hagler. Then I met producer Chuck Alkazian of Pearl Sound Studios. He asked me to send him my recorded tracks and I did. He remixed everything and it sounded so good, it was like he lit the candles and put the icing on the cake. We finished the rest at Pearl Sound. … The response to the album has been fantastic!
Q: Tell me how your upbringing influenced your music.
A: When I was about 5, my younger brother and I would pull out our older brother’s records and play them when he was out on the weekends. We listened to Little Richard, Chuck Berry, The Penguins, Elvis and The Everly Brothers. Then in 1960 came the start of Motown and their songs played on CKLW with Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Four Tops and Supremes. Then Detroit rock ‘n’ roll bands and the teen club scene started to explode with Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, Bob Seger and the last heard, Grand Funk Railroad, The MC5, the Psychedelic Stooges with Iggy and the Amboy Dukes. I worked at a small auto parts store in high school to earn money to buy a guitar, amps, and other gear. I also discovered John Lee Hooker, BB King, Steve Cropper, The Yardbirds, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. It was another world of guitar!
Q: One of your songs is about the Detroit uprising in 1967. Tell me more.
A: The riot was in July 1967. The National Guard, army helicopters were over my head and armed jeeps were in my neighborhood, even though we lived five miles away. Fear and hatred were everywhere. Ultimately, this created a wider racial divide. I felt the need to write a song about it. The song title came first, then the beat, then the guitar line and melody. I thank my producer, Chuck Alkazian, for helping to complete the recording. He thought I should ask Wayne Kramer from MC5 to record a guitar solo for him. It took me a few weeks to get the courage (I grew up listening to it). I called and he told me to send it and he loved it. I told him to do what he does, freeform, improvise. We received Wayne’s track and did nothing to it, no editing…it’s epic!
Q: Why is Detroit so important to you?
A: It was in Detroit that I grew up musically and created my first bands, then The Romantics. Detroit is highly respected in rock ‘n’ roll music circles, but most people don’t understand our upbringing and don’t understand the tough, tough, working-class union town it once was. With six months of winter and a few months of summer, our cloud nine was then a showcase that we rented and burrowed into every night as we learned to write, play and grow as musicians. That hard exterior and flight within gave off an energy. You could hear it in the way we were hitting the drums, hitting the guitars, pushing the vocals – it’s alive in the music coming out of this town. You only really know what it’s about if you’re from Detroit. It’s a different attitude.
Q: Did you run into Bob Seger, Alice Cooper and others related to Detroit?
A: Yes, all. In the 70s and 80s, we met Rod Stewart, Bob Seger, Johnny Bee, the Clash, the Ramones, Elton John, Iggy, Johnny Thunders with Wayne Kramer. People were showing up at clubs in the area – The Red Carpet and Union Street, Sexy Sadies, Maxie’s, Juke Box in Royal Oak…and Pipers Alley in Grosse Pointe. We would hang out in clubs, then we would sit and jam together.
Q: You co-founded The Romantics. How long was it before your first hit?
A: I had been in previous groups. It was 1976 when Jimmy Marinos and I were coming back from New York and decided to start a new band. We recruited Wally Palmar on rhythm guitar and Rich Cole on bass. The four of us sang the lead vocals.
The first song ideas came from my personal recordings on a cassette that I brought to the band’s first rehearsals in an old hair salon on Gratiot and 6 Mile Road that we had rented. I made up “What I Like About You” on my guitar in my parents’ garden and brought it to rehearsal that night. I played the chords and Jimmy started to find the verse and the melody. The other guys arrived and we played for them. It took three years and played in small clubs before signing with Nemperor Records and our first album “The Romantics” being released. “What I Like About You” was one of the hits and played consistently on MTV, in movies and TV commercials. I also recently found a “Soul Train” video from the 1980s that showed people doing a line dance there.
Q: What can you tell me on the business side and advice for someone just getting started?
A: I have my own company, Skillsongs, which oversees my music, Unleashed Music handles marketing, and EMPKT handles my media. And my advice: Always have your own lawyer and accountant to help you with any transaction.
Q: What impact has the pandemic had on you?
A: The pandemic has halted the closeness between artists and fans while increasing the dominance of the internet, podcasts and interviews. If you weren’t already pushing yourself on the web, now you are. Without live shows, that slowed down revenue, tremendously. But, without the frenzy of travel and the moving van, bus, hotel, stage, planes, this slowdown gave me time for things I would have put off or I just wouldn’t. And there is more time for family.
Contact Carol Cain: 313-222-6732 or [email protected] She is lead producer/host of “Michigan Matters,” which airs at 8 a.m. Sundays on CBS 62. See DTE CEO Jerry Norcia and Bishop Edgar Vann on this Sunday’s show.