Fred Mitchim Band interview
Fred Mitchim has worked with many of the original members of the 13th Floor Elevators for many years including the creation of a complete album with Powell St. John, (writer of several 13th Floor Elevators songs), the forming of the John Ike Walton Revival, in which he played guitar and sang lead vocals, and playing on several occasions with Ronnie Leatherman.
In 2015 Fred made contact again with Tommy Hall (13th Floor Elevators founder) and during that time Roky Erickson and the rest of the living Elevators decided to regroup for a reunion concert as the headline show at the 2015 Levitation Festival (Austin Psych Fest) in Austin Texas. Fred formed the Tommy Hall Schedule in 2002, essentially at that time a 13th Floor Elevator tribute band and had been playing the classic Elevator songs for about 13 years when the Elevators asked Fred to join them on guitar with Eli Southard as replacement for the late Stacey Sutherland. Fred Mitchim recently released his Without Any Brakes album.
Would you like to talk a bit about your background?
Hi Klemen! Thanks for your interest in my music. My background involves playing in electric rock bands and playing in ambient bands. I am a self-taught multi-instrumental singer-songwriter composer. My only formal training was one semester of tablas from Zakir Hussain at the Ali Akbar Kahn College of classical Indian music in 1972. My first all original psychedelic rock band was formed in October of 1969. Then I met John David Bartlett in the summer of 1970, at which time I begin playing flute for him. That same summer was my first encounter with one of the 13th Floor Elevators, Danny Thomas the second drummer. He would come over to the house where John’s friends lived and play the piano. A few weeks later I was lucky enough to spend all night in a recording studio with John David while he attempted to record his personalized version of “Slip Inside This House” with Danny on drums, me on flute and other musicians from John’s circle of friends and from my circle. After this all night session one of my favorite memories at 18 years old was jamming on flute with Danny one afternoon while he played piano. During this early formative period most of my music training came from being lucky enough to play with the highly developed musicians I was lucky enough to know at that time. Hanging out and watching the guys in my first psychedelic band and watching John David is how I learned to to play electricly and acousticly. So by starting to write lyrics in 1963 I set in motion a series of events that after 6 years led to me being involved with what I can only describe as psychedelic bliss… Texas psychedelic music history.
“My only formal training was one semester of tablas from Zakir Hussain”
When did you decide that you wanted to start writing and performing your own music? What brought that about for you?
In 1963 I was in 5th grade and I started to write lyrics. Coming from a non-musical family no one paid attention and influenced me good or bad in any way. The following year when the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and the English Invasion happened I feel certain most young people were awakened to the unbelievable power of rock music and the idea of being in a band. My goal in life as a child was to be an artist so creating pictures with the words seemed normal. When my teacher made all of us learn a simple song on plastic flute and I was supposed to learn to read music but I cheated and memorised the song and discovered music was not attached to symbols on paper. When 8th grade rolled around my friend we’re playing guitars and keyboards and drums and forming bands and I started having the urge to want to sing. When 9th grade rolled around and things changed from Mod to psychedelic overnight then the first 13th Floor Elevator album appeared. The tremendous success of their single “You’re Gonna Miss Me” had them playing all over Houston and they were the first real band I ever saw. If you lived in Texas and were exposed to the rotation that song got the tremendous power. Roky’s vocals made it apparent that he was the premiere vocalist in the entire world wide Rock scene. Hearing him scream like that and singing with that conviction made me more than just want to sing it made me want to come up with my own songs. Tommy’s lyrics set my mind on fire and the idea of consciousness expansion consumed me. A little over a year later Marc Bolan and Tyrannosaurus Rex appeared and I had the same reaction and feelings about his voice and his songs and it made me want to begin trying to construct original material. At this point I began trying to imitate Roky’s and Marc Bolan’s voices. About six months later getting high and jamming with my guitar playing friends is when we realized we were making up our own music and the only thing left was words and melody and singing which was thrown in my court… even though I had no practical musical experience. Back in the beginning of psychedelic music all the bands were so different that it never even occurred to us to try and imitate anyone and we proceeded forth with writing a huge batch of original material that never got properly recorded. Watching them play guitars made me pick them up and start to construct my own songs. Meanwhile the collaborative effort between me and my band mates produced two sets of songs that were very well accepted by our large group of friends and we became an exciting high school psychedelic rock band. Then meeting John David and him being a few years older and an actual professional allowed me to embrace the idea of writing and performing as a solo artist. So when I graduated from high school in 1970 I already considered myself to have chosen my mission in life. I proceeded forth with continuing to try to collaborate with my friends and writing wild flute lines to John’s songs while I developed my own material and in 1975 I committed to writing enough songs to be able to front my own band play the main electric guitar.
You have two brand new releases. Alive in Houston and a new studio album Without Any Brakes. What’s the story behind it?
Here’s the story behind my two new albums. In 2015 when I played the Psych Fest with the 13th Floor Elevators I had just spent over 45 years completely involved with psychedelic music. As I stated earlier when I began this journey in 1969 I had no practical music training I was simply a lyricist but the guitar players who surrounded me all had Roots backgrounds. They had learned to play while listening too old blues and early Rock while I had only listened. So when I began composing I did not have this Roots Foundation to start from I simply launched off into what sounded good to me. In 2002 when I began learning most of the elevator Library I finally got a Roots Foundation via Stacy Sutherland’s compositional talent. It influences most of the Elevator chords and leads. So when I finally played the most climactic musical event of my life it felt like a period at the end of a long sentence and I decided to approach my new compositions from a way more traditional standpoint… meaning write inside of the original Three chord structure that is the foundation of Blues and Rock. So starting in 2015 and leading up to 2019 I wrote 36 new blues rock songs with a psychedelic Edge. Then I sat down at my studio one computer recording studio on recorded each one of them and arranged and played the drums along with all the guitar work and vocals. I wrote simple bass lines to keep it stripped down and had my friend Sean French use his Gibson Firebird to play the bass lines. In 2019 I formed a power Trio and taught half of the 36 songs to my old bass player friend from my original High School psychedelic rock band… Art Elder and his drummer friend Dave Keepman and we rehearsed them for six months. Then we went into an actual recording studio and recorded everything in one afternoon except the vocals… then I returned and sang everything in one take… so in essence it’s a live album. When I was young and I listened to the first Hendrix album and then saw him play while also listening to the first two Cream albums and then saw them play I experienced how the studio version as wild as it may sound to you when you’re listening to it at home is nothing like the live version. This is especially true with Cream if you have ever compared songs from their beginning to concert footage at their beginning you know what I’m talking about. So for me it only makes sense to record a tight clean version of a song with the studio feel and then follow it up with an explosive live version. So that’s why I released both albums at the same time and with many of the same songs on each one.
“The ability to write music as ethereal and possibly semi genetic.”
How do you usually approach music making?
My favorite way to write song is to get together with a band of willing patient players and start jamming. Things tend to unfold in a more sensible manner if you have a bass player and a drummer. That being said the truth is it’s very difficult to find guys who will let you stretch out this much. So most of the time I just grab an acoustic or electric guitar and I start just noodling around. The secret to being able to write a song is to know what you like… To be in touch with what it is that makes you connect to music. When I start playing it can happen instantly or I can develop it over a few years and every version in between. 80% of the time you latch onto something with certain chords in a certain rhythm and a melody will come to me pretty quickly. By the time I mess with it for a few days usually the lyrics start popping out and I can sit down and write lyrics for a 3 verse song with a break and a chorus in a few hours. Since I don’t know how to read or write music and I had no formal training on guitar or keyboards I would explain the ability to write music as ethereal and possibly semi genetic. When I learned to play flute at 18 in 1970 it came to me so quickly and so easily and was so exciting that it was a good thing I was so young or I may have hesitated to go head-first into it like I did. The guitar on the other hand has been a lifelong process…I’ve gone through several phases to be able to play Rhythm and lead the way I do. Composing on the other hand came quickly and was the main reason I’ve been writing songs for decades now. So what I’m saying is you don’t really have to be able to play the guitar very well at all…. you just have to know a few chords and have something inside you that you really want to say. The final component is recording. Once you lay your song down is the difference between thinking a thought and writing it down. Everything changes and forms into a a much more solid graspable object. After finishing a song as good as it sounds and as good as it may make you feel after you master it it goes up a notch again and makes a connection that feels like live music. There is a psychological component to composition that is essentially you looking in a mirror and trying to grasp what it is you really appear to be. So I recommend writing songs to anyone because once again it’s not how technical or creative or brilliant you are it’s all about your desire to manifest something inside you outside of you and that always is an educational and usually uplifting experiment.
Can you share some further details how your latest album Without Any Brakes was recorded?
Over the decades I have recorded mostly in big studios and then over the last 10 years mostly in digital home recording studios. Without Any Breaks is the result of me learning to engineer and produce and also do the drums all on my own. I have never spent as much time writing and recording an album as I have Without Any Breaks. I wrote the songs for a power trio and so this is the first time I have recorded an album without overdubs orchestrating each passage. So I spent a lot more time with getting the right guitar tones and getting the arrangements tight enough so that the songs would have the same harmonic spectrum as you get when you use layers. I would only record one song at a time and come to it on and off throughout the week and listen to it in between recording and mixing and sometimes this would go on for up to a month. Approaching the songs like this allowed me to have a better feel for them then I have ever had before and so when I taught them to my new band and recorded them things went super fast as I hoped they would.
How pleased are you with the sound of the album?
Every single time almost any singer-songwriter or rock band will tell you that their latest release is their favorite and sounds the best… I am no exception… I released both these album simultaneously and I love both of them!
Do you often play live? Who are some of your personal favorite bands that you’ve had a chance to play with over the past few years?
My Trio plays almost every Tuesday night at a club on the edge of downtown here in Houston Texas. I enjoy live music of all different kinds but I actually do not have a favorite band these days. And being a songwriter over the years I have not sought out and tried to play with other bands that I admired but rather to get the musicians I admire to play with me on my projects. And of course my all-time favorite band is the 13th Floor Elevators so playing with them was as good as it’ll ever get for me.
You worked with many of the original members of the 13th Floor Elevators. How did that come about?
Everything about my musical interaction with members of the Elevators came about because I formed a tribute band to the elevators in 2002 called the Tommy Hall Schedule. I had always had equal admiration for Roky and Tommy, but Roky’s continuing career had created a legend around him and Tommy was drifting into obscurity. Since Tommy had formed the band and wrote the lyrics that had affected my life in such a dramatic way I wanted people to be reminded of his unbelievably important contribution to literature and music. Within that first year of forming the Tommy Hall Schedule and starting to play out I got a gig at a private party in Kerrville where John Ike Walton lived. I was able to get in touch with him and get him a copy of the CD and he agreed to play the gig with us. He showed up with the original drum kit with the Psychedelic painting on the bass drum and knocked it out of the park. A few months before that I had played an opening slot for Roky’s brother’s tribute band of which Ronnie Leatherman was playing bass in and we became friends and a little while after playing with John Ike Walton in Kerrville I invited Ronnie to come sit in with us at a gig in Austin. Over the next couple of years I invited John and Ronnie to play with the Tommy Hall Schedule at various other gigs in Austin. Around 2006 I was able to get John to go along with my idea of creating a band around him called the John Ike Walton Revival and over that next year we played a few gigs mostly in Austin and a little bit in Houston and Galveston. Then several years later in 2015 the phone rang and I was asked to come play with Eli Southard to fill in the hole left by Stacy’s death and had the best musical experience of my life. To actually be able to play a live gig of the magnitude that the Psych Fest presented and to be able to rehearse with the elevators leading up to it was a life memory experience that lifts me up through the ceiling every time I think about it.
“He took mescaline and floated up out of his body and looked down at himself”
How about your collaboration with Powell St. John?
My interaction with Powell St. John came about at the very beginning of the Tommy Hall Schedule. When I first sent CDs out I sent one to Tommy and I sent one to Powell. A good friend of Tommy’s named George Ripley talked to Tommy about the CD and Tommy agreed to have dinner with me and George and his wife if I came to San Francisco. Powell also liked the CD and my version of his compositions and lives close to Tommy in Berkeley. So I contacted Powell and asked him if I could come by when I came to San Francisco. George Ripley and I went by Powell’s house that afternoon before dinner with Tommy and when he greeted us at the front door he immediately asked if I would like a cup of tea and I followed him into the kitchen. I immediately asked him a question about “Kingdom of Heaven”…I wanted to know how a folk musician composer could turn such a sharp corner and write such a psychedelic piece. He said it was easy he took mescaline and floated up out of his body and looked down at himself and that was the inspiration. Having had a similar experience when I was 18 I immediately felt an affinity with Powell and we had an interesting visit. After that encounter it occurred to me that if I could pull it together somehow I might could get Powell to come up with unrecorded previously written songs and maybe write some new stuff. My thought was to get Powell to record a new album and we continue to discuss this over the next two years. While playing in Houston with the Tommy Hall Schedule an old friend of mine dropped by and let me know that if I wanted to record Powell with backing that he could afford to be the executive producer for this project. So at that point George Gershen funded the project that was released and called “Right Track Now”. I was able to get to what I considered the nicest studio in Austin called Cedar Creek recording and hire the best musicians in Austin which included my guitar-playing friend Mac McNabb and the legendary drummer Frosty. At this point Roky’s recovery was going well but he had still not decided to perform live yet. He had been coming out to watch his brothers band play and seemed comfortable enough in public such that I asked him if he wanted to record a duet with Powell singing “Right Track Now” and that became the climactic event of the recording session.
You also played with John Ike Walton Revival band.
After the first time I played in the Tommy Hall Schedule with John Ike, he came up to me and discussed the possibility of other gigs and him playing with us. The Tommy Hall Schedule was only about 6 months old and my drummer was a long time friend but he was not a giant Elevator Fan and did not really understand what John Ike’s style had done for the Elevators. Before Jimi Hendrix showed up with Mitch Mitchell on drums it was unheard of to play a jazz style in the Rock context. So needless to say after having labored over learning the songs and trying to play them as close to the way they were originally played I felt I had experienced the whole project go up a notch when I heard John Ike laying down his original, powerful, and wild style of drums that I had been listening to all those years. Not too long after this encounter I managed to get Ronnie and John to come play a set with me at a club in Austin and of course it went up another notch to have Ronnie playing the way he played. Ronnie however plays in several bands and was not as readily available as John presented himself to be. So after a couple of years and the Tommy Hall Schedule members changing I finally decided it would actually be way more exciting to just form a band with John and play the songs as a trio. He went along with my idea to call it the John Ike Walton Revival and we went at it for about a year. The best recording I got was live and that’s the CD I released. There’s a few other cuts on YouTube that have John ripping it just like he used to. The coolest thing about playing with John was that even though it was decades later and especially after a large cup of coffee he would warm up and play just like he used to… it was completely psychedelic and beyond exciting.
I would like to add to what I said about Mitch Mitchell in that John Ike Walton came first with playing jazz style drums inside of the rock context.
“He (Tommy Hall) is the greatest living psychedelic poet of the 20th century.”
In 2015 you got in touch with Tommy Hall. How’s Tommy doing lately?
After having dinner with Tommy Hall in 2002 which was arranged through his good friend George Ripley my communication with Tommy was done through George. In 2015 when I was contacted by Roky’s manager and was told to come to a rehearsal with Roky, Eli, John, and Ronnie in preparation for the Levitation Fest. A few days later my phone rang and it was Tommy Hall. Tommy discussed with me the internal situation within the band knowing that I was the only person who had been in regular contact with Ronnie and John. I first met Tommy in 1972 when I ended up living outside of San Francisco. I had gone out there with John David Bartlett and his Living Room Cat band to attempt to record an album. The recording project never came to fruition but a way more exciting event for me happened in that Tommy Hall surfaced after having not been in touch with anyone for around two years. He got in contact with all the Texas hippies he had known and I was in the peripheral of this group. I was living in Bolinas with John David and the rest of the guys and I was sweeping the driveway when he came walking up and introduced himself to me. I knew instantly when I saw him coming that it was him and was extremely pleased to meet the person I had wanted most to meet in the world. Over the next 3 months he came by several times and at one point I spent the afternoon hitchhiking into San Francisco with him and got to know him a little more personally. The next time I had contact with him was the dinner I previously mentioned that was arranged after he liked my Tommy Hall Schedule CD and wanted to meet me again. Then in 2015 we talked quite a bit over the phone about the band and the rehearsals and the gig and now I am in touch with him on a semi-regular basis. As far as how Tommy is doing I would have to tell you that he seems unchanged from when I very first met him all those years ago in ’72 and according to people who knew him before that he has been the way he is his entire life. That is to say Tommy is in a constant narrative… it is a stream of consciousness that can cover a broad range of subjects of which he discusses in a philosophical manner. When I first met him in the early 70s he did not wish to discuss the Elevators or his lyrics. When I met him again in 2002 he talked about almost nothing but his lyrics. Which was a huge surprise because I was warned not to bring up the Elevators or his lyrics but instead he brought it up. This was the luckiest evening of my life in that he went through important lines in “Slip inside This House” and” Postures” and “Living On” and a few other songs and gave me various thoughts and angles of what it meant to him then and what it meant to him these many years later. It was beyond cool it was a life changing moment . Throughout the evening we had dinner got high went and watched Johnny Winter’s play and he never stopped it went on for hours. I have attempted to reconstruct in my mind all the things he said so I could share it with others but there was simply too much and I have decided not to confuse the matter. Then 13 years later in preparation for the Levitation Fest all we discussed was the band and the set and how it would go. Nowadays when I talk to him he seems to have left all of that behind for finishing a book that he has been working on for a very very long time. The best way I could describe what this book will be about is to say Tommy is combining his understanding of physics and philosophy with his metaphysical grasp of reality and attempting to explain the universe. A few years ago Tommy had a heart attack in San Francisco but was literally outside of the best Heart Hospital in San Francisco and survived it just fine. One might think that all these decades and a medical moment of that magnitude would have an effect on him but as far as I can tell it does not. He is an extremely focused individual. To put it simply in my opinion he is the real deal. He is the greatest living psychedelic poet of the 20th century. He lives a life he carved out for himself in San Francisco many decades ago and in a way he is almost living a monk-like existence. For those of us who just can’t get enough of what Tommy is capable of producing all we can hope for is this finishes that book and we all get to read it. Other than that in my opinion the lyrics to “Slip Inside This House” and “Postures” and “Dust” represent the finest thoughts delivered during the Psychedelic era.
One of the most amazing experiences was probably your headline show at 2015 Levitation Festival with 13th Floor Elevators. How was to stand next to one of the fathers of Psych Rock on stage?
In 9th grade in 1967 the first real band I ever saw was the 13th Floor Elevators. “You’re Gonna Miss Me” was a big hit on the radio and they were getting tons of air play. I was at a teen club outside of Kenah Texas and there was probably a hundred people there but it was easy enough to go up to the front to the edge of the stage and watch the whole thing happen up close. Sadly there is no footage of them actually playing live from any period much less the beginning before any of the difficulties started… It’s hard to describe the unusual energy that they emitted. Fast forward 35 years of me contemplating this initial exposure to Psychedelic Rock and then deciding to create a tribute band…The Tommy Hall Schedule. It never entered my mind once that I had any chance of actually ever playing with them live or in the studio. Over the next 13 years my various interactions mainly with Ronnie, John, and a little with Roky still never led me to think that I could end up in a situation with the entire band. When this happened they already had Eli Southard who had studied Stacy’s tones and licks and learned them perfectly… Which I had not done in the Tommy Hall Schedule… I looked at the Tommy Hall Schedule as a psychedelic jam band and I learned the obvious parts of Stacy’s leads but I wanted to stretch the songs out and improvise and also I never studied his tones. So what they needed me for was my grasp on the chording of the songs and hammering them out the way Roky used to when he was young. For me the lucky thing about this was that I had just spent 13 years performing their songs and in order to feel loose at a live performance you have to know the songs all the way down into your subconscious and that takes time…which I had had. Henceforth I was not nervous and actually looked forward to the whole thing even though playing in front of 10,000 people was far from the norm for me. The rehearsals leading up to the gig were incredible…mainly because Roky would show up and hang out in front of the rehearsal room while the band using me as the front would go over the set. So to be in a nice studio rehearsal environment with the entire band playing the songs and me getting to sing them was unexpected and was like flying around in a flying saucer. After we warmed up then Roky would come in and he would be in a good mood and we would absolutely kill the songs. But then to finally end up onstage plugged in and starting off the set was a transcendent experience and at the same time more realistic than my standard day-to-day reality. If there are alternate dimensions in which we are living slightly different versions of our lives maybe there is a point where things lineup and for a moment and everything slows down and is interconnected in all directions. To become part of that indescribable energy that I saw in 1967 was as profound for me as my life can probably ever get. I was 63 when this happened so what I have to say to everyone is you really never know and I mean you really really never know what’s going to happen next…
What are some future plans?
My future plans are to continue to write record and play live… Many decades have passed but I still have the exact same desires I had when I first started this in 1969…
Thank you. Last word is yours.
My final thought is… Every single note of all music contains the DNA code of expanded consciousness. And to quote John Lennon… “All You Need Is Love”… And to quote Roky Erickson… “May The Circle Remain Unbroken”… And to quote Tommy Hall… “Three Eyed Men Are Not Complaining”.
– Klemen Breznikar