Interview with Micki Free (Crown of Thorns)

Former Crown of Thorns guitarist Micki Free has recently been over to the UK to play a show in London where he took some time out to chat with Mick Burgess about his new Blues album Tattoo Burn.

Your new album Tattoo Burn has just been released. Are you pleased with how it’s turned out?

I couldn’t be happier with it. I’ve got to be honest with you man, this is one of the best records that I have ever written. I wrote, produced and arranged it and all that. I just love it. It came out just how I wanted it.

Over the years you’ve covered a lot of ground musically from the Funk/Soul of Shalamar, to the Melodic Hard Rock of Crown of Thorns and your own Native American influenced music. With Tattoo Burn you’ve headed in a Blues direction. Is it important for you to explore so many areas of music?

The thing that most people don’t know is that before I joined Shalamar I was playing music like Tattoo Burn, that’s who I really am. That’s what I do, that’s my style and that’s how I play. When I joined Shalamar they were looking at me for my image because of that whole Prince thing. Gene Simmons, who was managing me and looked after me, said that I should join Shalamar as I’d be getting into a limo instead of a taxi cab. I understood exactly what he meant. There’s many sides to what I play but at heart I’m a Blues guitar player.

There’s certainly a Jimi Hendrix influence with some Billy Gibbons and Robert Cray too. Who are your major influences in the Blues field?

Jimi Hendrix without a doubt is my main influence. I saw him when I was 12 years old. I loved him and still love him; I listen to him all the time. I also love Zeppelin and The Stones. My I-Pod is full of Classic Rock. My main Blues influences are Muddy Waters, Albert King and Billy Gibbons who is way, way up there. People have asked if that’s Billy Gibbons playing on Tattoo Burn but it’s all me. He has heavily influenced me in my tone. It’s such a compliment when people say that, but it is all me. It’s better than being compared to friggin’ Popeye or something!!

The guitar work on the album is very tasteful. You don’t play a dozen notes when one will do. That’s very much from the BB King school of playing. Is the melody and feel of the playing of greater importance to you than showing off your technique?

I can’t believe you’ve said that because that is so true. To me Blues is about the song, the performance and how people react to the song. It’s not about how quick you get up and down the neck and that’s now what my album is about. I don’t care less how many notes somebody can put into a song. Less is more. That is the way that I play as you know. I can put the gas on when I need to, like on “Voodoo Chile” but I still breathe when I play. The most important part in music are the gaps between your notes. Jeff Beck will tell you that, Billy Gibbons will tell you that and even Clapton because it’s true.

In your band is Cindy Blackman-Santana, who of course played for a long time with Lenny Kravitz. She is certainly one of the best female drummers around. How did she get involved with your music?

I was in the studio in Nashville recording American Horse and I was playing “Voodoo Chile” and the bass player , David Santos who plays with John Fogerty, said it was brilliant and that he’d send it to a friend of his who would love it. That happened to be Cindy Blackman. The next thing I know, my phone rings and she goes “Micki Free, it’s Cindy Blackman. Dude, you Rock! That version of “Voodoo Chile” is the best version I’ve heard besides Jimi Hendrix.” I was in shock. She said that if I ever needed a drummer that I had to let her know and that was it. She’s played on my American Horse album and she’s in my three piece band now. She’s actually Cindy Blackman-Santana now though as she married Carlos Santana a couple of years back.

You also got Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones to make a guest appearance. Does he only play on the live track performance of “Red House” or did he come into the studio too?

On Tattoo Burn Bill only plays on “Red House”. When we recorded live in Hyde Park he also performed “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” too. Next year you should see a new live album Micki Free Live in Hyde Park featuring Bill Wyman which will be my whole performance of that show. That was the festival where Stevie Wonder headlined. That was such an amazing show. I also played there back in 2007 when Aerosmith headlined. It was sunny when I played but then it rained and rained for most of the day. That was an unbelievable day too.

Bill Wyman was really at the forefront of bringing Blues to the masses with the Rolling Stones and his knowledge of the Blues is pretty much second to none. Did he open your eyes to some Blues artists that you weren’t previously aware of?

When I first met Bill we became good friends really quickly. I’ve been over to visit Bill with my family a few times and as a matter of fact, I’m having dinner with him right after this interview! He gave me a copy of the Bill Wyman’s Blues Odyssey CD and it had people on there that I’d never heard of. Even better than that, he gave me a personal CD that he made for me of his Blues favourites. He said “Chew on this for a while Micki, you’ll love it”. That was full of amazing players. His influence is all over Tattoo Burn, especially the song “Greens and Barbeque” that’s Bill showing me all the old school artists, that’s how it’s done.

There’s not too many of the great old Blues artists left with the passing of Hubert Sumlin and David “Honeyboy” Edwards last year. How do you feel about that?

You’ve got to grab a hold of that while you can. I’ve been very fortunate to have met some good people through my music and through my friendship with Bill Wyman and Billy Gibbons. I’ve played at Morgan Freeman’s Blues Club at Ground Zero and that’s where I really got into the Blues. There’s a Blues museum there that is fantastic and the crossroads is also there where Robert Johnson made the deal with the devil. It’s unbelievable. It’s so sad to lose those guys so we have to be sure that we carry on with their legacy and continue to keep the Blues alive.

Other than the Hendrix tracks “Red House” and “Voodoo Chile Blues”, did you write all the music on the album or did you collaborate with other writers?

Every song on there is written by me by myself other than “Red House” and “Voodoo Chile Blues” which of course are written by Jimi Hendrix.

It’s been a while since we last saw you touring in the UK. Can we expect some dates from you sometime this year?

I’m playing a one off show in London this week but there’s no doubt I want to play more shows around the country as you know most of the killer fans are in the cities and towns outside of London. I’ve toured with Shalamar and Crown of Thorns so I really get it. I’d love to come and do a proper tour and play to the real fans and to people who are going to be digging it. That would be a dream.

You’ve recently announced that you will be joining up again with Shalamar this year for some shows. It’s been a long time since you played together. How did this reunion come about?

I’d just moved back to LA and Howard Hewett and I are best friends and have always stayed in touch. I said to him that all these ’80’s bands were making huge amounts of money playing at these casinos and he said we should go out and play. “Dancing in the Streets” was a huge hit and we never toured on that song. We said let’s do it and we’re doing it.

Are you just going to be playing a few shows or do you hope to do some serious touring together?

It will be what it will be. I’ll take it as it comes. If they book some good stuff then I’ll do it, even if it’s small, I’ll do it. Howard has a solo career and I have a solo career so we have to do it in between. I’m a musician and I love playing with Howard and you make it happen.

In the Melodic Rock world you are known for forming Crown of Thorns with Jean Beauvoir, Michael Paige and the sadly departed Tony Thompson. How did that band initially come about?

Jean and I ran into each other once in Paris and he said that we should do something one day. After that meeting we came back to The States and Gene Simmons was my best friend and Paul Stanley was Jean’s best friend. They put us together in LA and I wrote “Hike It Up”. Gene showed it to Paul and that was it. They said that they’d manage us and that we’d have a great record and it was a great record.

Did you find that some people were a little hesitant to embrace the band due to your history with Shalamar and Tony Thompson’s past with Chic or did you find that they were pretty open minded about it?

I wasn’t worried at all as Tony, Jean and I all come from Rock backgrounds and the other stuff was to pay the bills and we knew that. When they heard my riffs and Jeans melodies they knew we were on the home run. Gene discovered me as a Rock musician not as a Funk musician.

Tony Thompson made his name with Chic. His Rock background however was excellent too and he actually played with Led Zeppelin at Live Aid. What was he like to play with?

Tony Thompson playing with Led Zeppelin was incredible. He was a great guy and a great drummer and we all miss him very much.

Why did he end up leaving so soon after the album was released?

Tony couldn’t come to an agreement businesswise with some of the things Crown of Thorns had to do. Gene and Paul were running the show and he just decided to leave. He and I and Jean all remained friends. It was a business move and it was a personal decision of Tony to leave.

Crown of Thorns had close links with Kiss. Paul Stanley co-wrote “Winterland” on the debut album and co-produced a couple of tracks too. Stanley has written some great songs over the years. What did you learn from him as a songwriter?

“Winterland” is one of my favourite songs of all time. He is just so good at arrangements. He’s the best at that. He is a good lyricist too. I learned a lot from Paul about arrangements and I think he learned a little bit from me too. I wrote most of “Winterland” and I brought it to Paul and Jean and they loved it.

As a producer, what did he bring to that album?

Again he brought his skills as an arranger and also his experience gained from being a Rock star for years. He knew what to do and his name lent credibility to our project. He was just great in the studio and was a total workaholic, things had to be right or he wouldn’t let it out.

Have you heard any of the new Kiss album yet?

I’ve heard a bit of it, It’s going to be like the last one but much harder.

You toured with Crown of Thorns after the album came out. How did it feel playing the small clubs again after having so much success with Shalamar? Did it feel like you were starting out again?

It didn’t bother me at all. Gene told me when he managed me “10 or 10,000 you get the same show”. That was my mentality and I loved playing those smaller shows as they were more intimate. I can’t wait to play at the 12 Bar Club in London where it’ll be just me, my Flying V and my pedal board playing songs off Tattoo Burn, it’ll be a blast.

You also played some intimate acoustic shows in smaller venues as part of the promotion for the album including Crocodilos in Chester-le-Street. You really got right back to the basics and out amongst your fans for that? Do you remember much about those shows?

Are you kidding man, of course I remember those they were great. I was just talking to Michael Paige about those the other day. He sent me over loads of pictures of us doing those shows.

Do you have any recordings of those shows?

I don’t but Michael Paige does. I’m not sure if we’ll put them out one day. I’ll speak to Jean about that so maybe we will at some point. Knowing Jean though he’ll spend years correcting everything and get it just perfect.

You were originally signed on a big deal to Interscope but they delayed the release of the album and it was put out sometime later by Now and Then. What happened with the label?

It got delayed as Grunge came along and screwed everything up in the US, that’s what happened. That delay was critical for us and sunk our record and prevented us from becoming huge Rock stars in America, it really did.

Why did you leave the band before the second album came out?

Because I was doing a solo record, Micki Free Gypsy Cowboy, which Jean engineered and mixed it. He was upset as it sounded better than Crown of Thorns. He was mad at me and said I couldn’t do both and I said yes I can and I left.

Would you work with Jean again in the future?

Of course, and I have worked with him many times since I left. In fact we’ve nearly finished an album together called The Nine, it’s like early Crown of Thorns and it sounds fantastic.

You have released a few albums celebrating your heritage. Are these all utilising traditional instrumentation?

They are records featuring the Native American flute. I was disillusioned with Rock ‘n’ Roll and I wanted to go back to my heritage and I learned how to play the Native American flute. I won awards for each of my three records. I love that instrument, it’s just amazing.

Can you tell me a little about your Native American heritage?

I’m Cherokee and Comanche mixed blood. Comanche was originally from Texas and Cherokee came from Georgia and North Carolina in the east.

The cover artwork for the Sun Chaser, Comanche and Sedona Free albums features you with striking face paint. Is this your own design or have you utilised traditional body and face paint?

It’s called Full Regalia and no one has the design that you wear. That’s my vision face, it’s what I saw in a vision and that’s how you paint yourself. No one else looks like that.

You have just been appointed as Deputy Director of Promotions for the Seminole Tribe of Florida. What will your role be here?

They hired me to create music programs for them and I travel all over the world performing on their behalf and on behalf of the Hard Rock International brand which they own.

Where would you recommend people to investigate if they would like to find out more about Native American heritage both on the internet and in terms of good books on the subject?

I don’t really know as the books are only written by white people and don’t tell the truth about Native Americans. Do some research online to read about us and take what you believe and if you’re lucky enough you can meet a real Native American, they can tell you their own story.

Now that your Tattoo Burn album is out and you have some shows lined up with Shalamar. What else do you have lined up over the coming months?

I’ll be doing promo for Tattoo Burn for a while then I’m back to America and I’ll be doing a reality TV show. There might be a documentary about my life as a Native American as well. I hope to do a lot more touring with Tattoo Burn over the coming year too.

Micki Free’s latest album Tattoo Burn is available now.

For more on Micki Free visit


  • Mick Burgess

    Mick is a reviewer and photographer here at Metal Express Radio, based in the North-East of England. He first fell in love with music after hearing Jeff Wayne's spectacular The War of the Worlds in the cold winter of 1978. Then in the summer of '79 he discovered a copy of Kiss Alive II amongst his sister’s record collection, which literally blew him away! He then quickly found Van Halen I and Rainbow's Down To Earth, and he was well on the way to being rescued from Top 40 radio hell!   Over the ensuing years, he's enjoyed the Classic Rock music of Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, and Deep Purple; the AOR of Journey and Foreigner; the Pomp of Styx and Kansas; the Progressive Metal of Dream Theater, Queensrÿche, and Symphony X; the Goth Metal of Nightwish, Within Temptation, and Epica, and a whole host of other great bands that are too numerous to mention. When he's not listening to music, he watches Sunderland lose more football (soccer) matches than they win, and occasionally, if he has to, he goes to work as a property lawyer.

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