Ever since joining heavy metal legends Riot back in 1993, vocalist Mike DiMeo has been responsible for some of the most soulful vocals laid down in the modern metal scene. Beginning with 1994's 'Nightbreaker', DiMeo soon found his footing, contributing not only fantastic vocals, but also well thought out lyrics which are some of the most articulate in the melodic power metal genre. Before leaving in 2006, he ended up recording six studio albums and one live album with the group, consolidating his stature as one of the finest vocalists around.
Another testament to his considerable vocal talents is the fact that the Long Island native was tapped by then Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore to work on their 25th Anniversary album 'The Battle Rages On,' going as far as recording sessions for the album before record company pressures brought Ian Gillan back into the band, leaving DiMeo somewhat the odd man out at the time.
In 2004 the most versatile frontman joined up with ex Rainbow, B.O.C. and Sabbath drummer Bobby Rondinelli, guitarist Patrick Klein and bassist Randy Pratt in The Lizards for the excellent 'Cold Blooded Kings' album, eventually recording two further studio albums with the band, 'Against All Odds' (featuring several duets with Black Country Communion's Glenn Hughes), the covers album 'Archaeology' and the live DVD '4-2-11'. In 2006, he replaced vocalist Jorn Lande for the recording of power metallers Masterplan's 'Mk II'.
One facet of DiMeo's musical abilities many of his fans in the metal and hard rock scene might not be aware of is his impressive skills as a keyboardist. From supplying Jon Lord stylings on the Lizards' releases ,being part of Andy Aledort & The Groove Kings, to him being part of the touring bands of Tommy James and The Shondells and Bonnie Tyler, the vocalist is finding himself increasingly in demand as a session player. Evidenced by the fact that he was asked to contribute on all tracks of the brand new release 'Roots' by albino blues rock legend Johnny Winter, even appearing live as part of the band for the CD release party in New York City.
Recently we had the wonderful opportunity to catch up with Mike shortly after his appearance with Winter at the bluesman's album release party. Come read with us as we have an exclusive conversation with one of the finest vocalists on the hard rock/metal scene, Mike DiMeo....(photo credit for Johnny Winter photos courtesy Marion Amundsen)
Interview and text by Nightwatcher for Nightwatcher's House Of Rock © 2011
NHOR : Thank you for setting down and talking with us Mike. It's always a pleasure. You've been doing a lot of projects as of late. What have you been up to?
Mike DiMeo : I just recently did a week of dates with Creation's End. They have this guy, Marco Sfogli on guitar. It's really prog metal. The record is prog, but I'm singing kind of soulful, bluesy melodies over it. I've been doing a lot of session work with a lot of bands. I just finished a record with a band called Midas Fate. That's really proggy too. We're going to be touring Europe next year. I also did an album with Ilium, an Australian band. I did an album with a stoner rock band from New York, Tenpoint. That stuff is kind of cool too. We're looking for a label. We have interest from different labels to release that. That's going to come out relatively soon. We'll also be playing some dates too.
But the thing that I'm most excited about is this Johnny Winter record I just played on.
NHOR : How did it come about that you played on his new album?
MD : It's kind of one of those things where it was a little bit of luck, and a little bit of they dug what I was playing. I play with the guitar player from Dickie Betts' band, Andy Aledort. We have this guy Vito Luizzi in the band. He's Johnny Winter's drummer. Paul Nelson, Johnny's manager, asked Vito to ask me to track demos with the band, because they needed a piano player to put down piano tracks, because they were going to have Dr. John come later and play keyboards on the record. So I was like, "Sure that sounds great".
So I went to the studio in Connecticut, and I tracked with them for about four days. The tracks came out great. Basically what happened was Dr. John was busy, they really liked my tracks, so with a little bit of luck and a little bit of talent it got me on the record. It was really something that was good. I was really into it when they told me that they were going to use all my tracks on the album.
NHOR : So you're on the whole album?
MD : Pretty much. I think every song. I think there maybe one song that doesn't have piano on it. But it was great. It's got some of my favorite guitar players on it, like Vince Gill, who's a killer chicken picker Country player. I love his playing. Sonny Landreth is on it, Warren Haynes is on it. It's just a killer record.
NHOR : Playing on this album should expose you to a whole different audience than what you're used to in the metal/hard rock genre....
MD : That's what I'm hoping. Johnny's singing on this album is just unbelievable.
NHOR : So he's in better shape then....
MD : To me, he's one of the most soulful singers in blues today. His voice is just killin'. He's amazing. I got to sit there and watch him sing. He does everything in one take. I was sitting there next to him, and it was really cool to watch him. He's amazing. I'm really psyched, because I'm really influenced by blues music. That's really where my heart lies as far as what I want to be doing.
NHOR : Since having heard the album, how do you feel your performance is?
MD : To be honest, I'm very, very happy to be part of the project. I was basically part of the rhythm section. I'm just trying to be a back up for Johnny. I'm not a featured soloist on the record. But I think what the goal was to provide a foundation for Johnny and the other artists who came in to solo, and the other singers. Just a foundation for them to work their magic over. I think that we did that amazingly well. I think the record is strong.
Paul Nelson, who's Johnny's manager, is also a fantastic guitar player. He's part of the rhythm section as well. He actually has a solo on the record as well which is amazing. The drummer, Vito Luizzi...we all did a great job, and the record sounds amazing. And Johnny's vocals are unbelievable. I got to watch him cut those tracks. At least most of them. He was just amazing to watch. I think that the goals we set out to achieve with the album, we did.
NHOR : How was the recording approached with this album? Were the tracks basically cut live?
MD : To be completely honest with you, that was another reason I was very happy to be involved with this project. It was a real learning experience for me. Compared to where I come from, which is the world of rock, where you do everything you can to make the song sound great. It's another school of thought. With Masterplan and Riot, I was doing tons of lead vocal tracks. I would do backing tracks. We would double, triple things...harmonies. That's a great way to record. I think for rock stuff it works really well.
But then I got to watch Johnny do his vocals. He sits in the control room, or in the live room, in front of an SM7 Shure mic, and he sits in front of two monitors, and he sings live to the track. He does everything once. That's it. It was amazing to watch, because in this day where ProTools and digital recording is so easy to do things again and again and again, it's really refreshing to watch someone come in and hit it and quit it. (Laughs) That's what he does. He wouldn't want to do it again. I asked him about it and he said, "If I can't get it the first time, I can't get it". I think he may have come in at a later date and gave some of the vocals a second shot once through, but that's how he does it man. He does it from the old school. This is the guy who produced Muddy Waters, so you're talking the foundation of one of my favorite artists ever. It was just really amazing to watch him. It sounded amazing, and it was killer.
NHOR : Working with Johnny and seeing his approach to recording... Do you feel that might influence your approach to recording in the future?
MD : Absolutely. Because with different projects, you do what's best for the project. If I do a metal record, if you don't hit something the first or second time, you still have to make sure that it's perfect. With blues it's different. But I can't just take that approach. In theory though, I would like to try to be more in that mindset of going for a more raw, emotional performance.
NHOR : You are quite well known in the metal and hard rock scene for your vocal work with Riot, Masterplan and The Lizards, but not as many know your keyboard work, which you are increasingly getting more into, doing a lot more sessions. Who are your influences, and what is your background as a keyboardist?
MD : I originally started out playing piano because we always had one around the house. I always played as a way to write. I needed an outlet to help me write, and develop the ideas I had musically. I always felt it was the best way for me to achieve that. I started to get more serious at keyboards in my late 20's when I started to gig with bands locally. Mainly blues, which I found was a great outlet for me.
I was always influenced by guys like Ray Charles and Dr.John. I would say my biggest influence as a keyboardist would be the jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. I'm definitely not a jazz player, but I do like to stretch into jazz . In my 30's I started to get more and more work. I was touring with The Lizards, and was playing Hammond organ. Then I started to tour with Tommy James & The Shondells and Bonnie Tyler, and more and more calls came in. Then now with some Country artists even.
The thing for me, music is music. I make my living strictly from music and I'm appreciative every day for that. The more instruments that you play as a musician, and the more understanding you have of music just makes you more valuable as a player, and the more you will work. I try to stretch out into as many forms of music as I like. I won't do things that I don't like. And that's mainly always soulful, bluesy type of stuff.
NHOR : You played live on stage with Johnny at the 'Roots' album release party in New York City. What was it like playing on stage with him?
MD : It was amazing man. The thing about Johnny Winter is that he's a legend. It's a total honor because he is such a legend. This is a guy who people like Clapton and The Allman Brothers look up to. To work with him has just been an honor in every way. I was extremely honored to be asked to play. It was really great. There were a such a lot of great players there, and to watch him sing and play was amazing. I'm really thrilled to have been part of it.
NHOR : Have you been approached at all about going on tour with Johnny?
MD : To be honest with you Johnny's really not used to playing with a piano player. So there may be a possibility in the future, but that's something I'm not really sure about. Obviously I would love to do it because all the guys in the band get along great. Paul Nelson, the guitar player, Vito Luizzi the drummer, Scott Spray, the bass player, they're a great band.
I would love to do it, but I don't know if it's in the cards. It could be. I hope so. If they were to ask me I'd do it in a heartbeat. To be honest with you, I probably will be playing with him again, I'm just not sure when. Paul Nelson has told me I will be working with them sometime in the future. But Johnny's a power trio guy. He likes his guitar, bass and drums. I'm not a member of the band, but if they do need me I'll be there. (Laughs)
NHOR : What are some of the blues albums which have influenced you?
MD : When I first started listening to blues music, I went to a lot of the Muddy Waters stuff. Any of his albums that you can pick up are the ones which set the precedent for me. As far as the emotion and the power that blues can convey. When some people listen to the blues, especially the metal guys, they think they can pull off these bluesy licks. They think that they're playing blues but it's not at all. If you listen to those early Muddy Waters albums it's really about the emotion in what they're playing. It's not about what they're saying technically.
As I stretched out into the blues I got into one of my favorite singers, who is Bobby "Blue" Bland. His album 'Dreamer' is probably one of my favorite records. Another one of my favorite singers is Freddie King. Any one of his records. The vocals are stunning. You don't hear people sing like that, have power in their vocals like that. Every time I listen to him he blows me away.
NHOR : The projects you are involved with are widely diverse. From blues based such as Johnny Winter and Andy Aledort, to prog/heavy metal with Tenpoint and Creation's End. Is there any adjustment you have to make before going into the studio in terms of how you are going to approach the recordings? Is there any difficulty in the transition?
MD : Everything I do comes basically from the same place. I'm inspired from a soulful aspect of music. I can't approach music in a mathematical way. A lot of bands that I hear, especially in Prog and Euro -Metal, the reason I can't relate to them is they're too mathematical for me.
NHOR : There's no blues base at all.
MD: No, there's no soulful aspect to it. So it's really hard for me to relate to. If I get hired by a band to do vocals or piano, it's always going to be coming from a place which inspires me. Which is blues, soul and that type of thing. So to answer your question it's not very hard, because I'm always treating things the same way. I'm coming at them from a soulful aspect.
NHOR : When a band approaches you to do vocals or play on a project, what is your criteria for agreeing to do it?
MD : If I have a real problem relating to the music, then I'll pass on it. If it's something that I don't think that I can add to, make it sound better, then I'll pass on it. If it's something that I can relate to, even if it's odd times and proggy, I can still hear soulful melodies over it. if I can't do that then it's something that's not for me.
NHOR : Even though you have made a name for yourself in metal/hard rock circles, you do have a blues based background. I know that Bobby "Blue" Bland and Muddy Waters are a couple of your favorites. How difficult is is to put something that's soulful into prog or metal, which is more structured?
MD : If you want to translate a blues feel to things, it's more in the delivery. The delivery that you put on a record...Especially being a singer, you can tell influences, and you can tell where someone's coming from just from the sound of his voice. It can be hard to show where you're coming from if it's really odd times, but I try to do my best. Because that's basically what I grew up listening to, blues and blues based music. If it's really difficult to do that I won't even take on the project.
NHOR : You've been involved in so many projects. Which ones have been your favorites?
MD : That's hard to say. I like them all. I like the Creation's End thing, because I think the songs are really strong. I really like Tenpoint, due to it being raw. I really like that. If I were to do a solo project..and I've been talking with several people about doing a solo project...It would be something really raw rock. Which I really like. Kind of a mixture of blues and metal.
Have you heard of a band called Red Fang? Something like that. Really raw. I was just down in Florida not long ago, and someone played that band for me and I was blown away. I thought they were really heavy. I was really impressed. They were really raw and new. Even though it's sort of an old idea. It's very Sabbath oriented, but it sounded really fresh to me. I like all the projects that I'm involved in. I just started working last year with Vinnie Moore. We did a nice tour of Europe. We did a nice show in New York City recently too.
NHOR : At The Iridium Club...
MD : Yeah, Vinnie and I have been toying around with the idea of making a record. That's going to come to fruition sometime. I would love to work with Vinnie more. He's such a great guitarist.
NHOR : Have you and Vinnie discussed when that's going to happen? What timeline that would be doing a record together?
NHOR : We keep talking about it, and I think eventually it will happen. But right now we're both busy doing other things. He's swamped right now with the new U.F.O record. He's really busy doing that. I think all the projects I've been doing I'm really happy with. I like to be as busy as I can. I also play piano for a lot of different artists, who are not metal. I play with Bonnie Tyler when she comes to the States. That's great. She's got such a soulful voice. We did a tour which kept me busy, and I think we're going to be doing another tour this year. She's looking at more dates in October. I'm looking to keep as busy as I can in the future.
NHOR : You mentioned earlier about working with Tenpoint. Apparently you're in the midst of recording a full album with the band. When is that due to be released?
MD : That's actually finished. I'm not sure if it's finished and being mastered, but it's relatively close. If not done. If it's mastered, we just have to find a label, or we may just release it ourselves. Either way it's going to be out very soon.
NHOR : Have you considered doing any touring with Tenpoint?
MD : Yeah. We're looking into that too. All of our schedules are pretty busy but we'd love to tour. We'd love to do some festivals in Europe. If we could get a decent label to put us out on the road that would be great.
NHOR : You mentioned previously that you're also working with Andy Aledort and the Groove Kings. How did you get together with Andy?
MD : I met Andy a long time ago. Back in the 90's. Just locally, we started working together. I met him through some mutual friends. We hit it off, get along great, and we just started working all the time together, playing as much as possible. He's been the main gig for me when I'm not on the road. He stays pretty busy. We play a couple times a month at least. If not more. It's great, because he's a great guitar player. He loves to play. We'll take as much work as we can. It's great music. It's blues based. A lot of straight blues stuff. He's semi busy with Dickie Betts. Dickie's really not working that much anymore. He's basically retired. So he has a lot of time when he's not touring. But he's Editor of Guitar World magazine, so he's busy.
NHOR : You also mentioned a little bit ago about possibly doing a solo album. What sort of vein would you want to have it in? Would it have a variety of music, given the various influences that you have?
MD : That's one of the things that I've been sort of procrastinating about for so long. That's one of the reasons I've never done my own thing. Because I'm not really sure. I'm into so many different styles of music. But I really like a mixture of raw rock style, like Red Fang style and blues. So if I could get the sound that I'm looking for it would be sort of a mixture of that. I really love that style. Sort of real raw, in your face bluesy based rock. That's what I'd be thinking about doing.
NHOR : What is your take on the state of metal and hard rock these days? Do you feel that the scene is getting healthier at all?
MD : I definitely do. I think there's a lot of great bands out there. One of the problems that we're facing is that the world economy is in such bad shape all over the world. The first thing people cut out of their budget is entertainment. People just don't go see bands as much. They'll put on YouTube instead. It's much cheaper for them to stay home.
NHOR : When you went out on tour with Creation's End, were there a lot of people who showed up at the shows? Did it live up to your expectations in that regard?
MD : Creation's End is a new band. We don't have a massive following. We've done one record. It sold pretty well. I think the reaction, and the response from people was great. But there are so many bands out there on the road now, everyone's fighting for every dollar that they get. We're going to do another record. We did this tour mainly because the band has never really worked together before. Marco, the guitarist lives in Italy, so it's not so easy to get together. We did maybe two gigs with him before this tour. We knew we weren't going to sell that many tickets because it's a new band. We don't have a large fanbase yet. We're hoping to build on that. The response was great where we went. The band sounded great. We mainly did the tour so we could get tight for ProgPower.
NHOR : Is Creation's End something you would like to continue with on a long term basis?
MD : We have material for a second record. I'm definitely psyched to do it. We're definitely going to tour more too. I'm definitely open to working as much as possible.
NHOR : You mentioned Red Fang earlier. Besides that band have there been any bands or artists which have caught your ear lately?
MD : I find myself really sort of attracted to that type of music these days. I think it's the mixture of rawness and bluesiness that does it for me. It's a huge departure from the Euro Metal and the Prog metal scene that I've been involved with for so long. I love that stuff, but if I were to do my own thing it would definitely be more raw like that. Like Down, Crowbar, and that type of stuff.
NHOR : There are rumors afoot that The Lizards, with whom you've recorded several albums with drummer Bobby Rondinelli of Black Sabbath, Rainbow and Blue Oyster Cult, and Randy Pratt of Cactus, are going to release another studio album. Is there any truth to those rumors?
MD : That's what they say (Laughs). The record's already recorded. They tell me they're going to mix it, but Randy's been telling me that for the last two years, and it hasn't happened yet. (Laughs)
NHOR : What's next on the horizon for you? You just did the Johnny Winter album, but what else do you have on tap?
MD : I'm going to be going to Sao Paulo, Brazil, to finish some writing with Midas Fate, with whom I've recorded an EP with. We're working on a full length album as we speak. I've had some one off dates with some artists who I work for playing piano. I'll be in Canada, out West, doing dates. I have a lot of recording situations on the horizon as well.
NHOR : What's the current situation with Riot? Do you ever foresee a time when you might get back together with the band for another album or a tour?
MD : I speak to Mark Reale a lot still. He's still a really good friend of mine. I wouldn't be opposed to it. But I think they're sort of involved in this reunion thing still. I think they have a new album that will be coming out, and doing some touring, from what Mark told me. So if they can ride that wave of the reunion that would be great for them. Because that was a good lineup. A lot of people love the 'Thundersteel' era, and people want to see it. I think Mark is going to see how far he can take that lineup. If they can tour and record, more power to them. I wish them the most success. I wouldn't be opposed to working with Mark again in the future. We talk about doing a project together, and maybe we will if we both have time.
NHOR : So it wouldn't necessarily need to be with Riot....
MD : I'm not opposed to it being Riot, but it wouldn't necessarily need to be that.
NHOR : You left Masterplan after recording the 'Mark II' album several years ago. What were the reasons behind you leaving the band after only recording one album?
MD : Basically, we did a really long tour. Six or seven months. We came home, and we had a really long stagnant period of doing nothing. I heard very little from them. I passed up some work waiting to see if we were going to work, and basically we didn't. I can't sit around and wait. I don't think they have toured again since we toured. The band wasn't really a working band. I need to stay working. I have a house I need to pay for. (Laughs) I can't sit at home and wait. The guys basically didn't want to tour, and I couldn't pass up other options. So in my opinion it was just time to move on.
NHOR : What role do you see the Internet as having on a musician such as yourself?
MD : It's a double edged sword. Of course the illegal downloading is killing revenue for artists. It's something which has become a real problem in terms of making a living through songwriting and releasing music. Because as soon as an album is released it can be had for free. It's a major problem. On the other hand, if you're making a living doing session work, it's fantastic. You don't have to travel all over the world anymore. I get files sent to me all the time. I go into a studio, I do my vocals, and I send them back. It's really easy that way. It has opened up a lot of doors for musicians in sending files all over the world. You can record back and forth. It's really brought the world closer together. So it is a double edged sword, because it hurts and it helps.
There has to be a way that we can put some sort of stamp on music where if you want that piece of music you have to pay for it. There's got to be a way, technologically speaking, where if you want that mp3, you have to get a code or something. I'm not a technical guy that way, but there's got to be a way. When you buy software, you have to put codes in, so why not music?
For more information on Mike DiMeo go to this location :
With Johnny Winter "Done Somebody Wrong"(featuring Warren Haynes) from 'Roots' 2011 :
With Vinnie Moore "Daydream" live at the Iridium Club, New York City July 25, 2011 :
Creation's End "Of Shadow And Flame" 2010
Tenpoint "Killing Me" music video 2010 :
With Masterplan "Lost and Gone" 2007 :
With The Lizards "Down", live Frankenthal 2005
With Riot "Cover Me", from 'Sons Of Society" 1999 :