Nine years ago, Michael McDermott was a burgeoning singer-songwriter-guitarist, signed to a major label at age 22 and hailed as a Dylan and Springsteen for the 1990s. (How’s that for career pressure?) Today, after several tight squeezes through the wringer, he reemerges a new man – and admittedly a little worse for the wear.
“Last Chance Lounge,” his fifth album and first for Koch Records, was released Oct. 10. That, in itself, says something for the Chicago native’s perseverance.
“I don’t feel like a new artist,” McDermott said recently. “I feel like an old artist, really. I just turned 31, but I feel like 70. I’ve been down this road so many times.
“I’ve gone through a lot of personal stuff, like quite a bad bout with drugs and booze. On a personal level, I feel better, and it’s something I still have to work at. But I’m not so consumed with being a recording artist anymore, which might not be a good thing, quite frankly. It’s just what I do, and I love doing it. It’s all I want to do. I just hope to God I can maintain, otherwise it’s going to be this or I’ll be saying things like ‘Attention, Kmart shoppers.’ It’s this or that.”
He showed a lot of promise in 1993 after EMI whisked him away from Giant after his debut album, “620 W. Surf,” captured MTV’s attention and drove the single, “A Wall I Must Climb,” up Billboard’s album rock tracks chart. Two albums he did for EMI were critics’ favorites but failed commercially.
Then came the EMI implosion stateside.
“The whole EMI thing, the fallout of EMI was a good thing,” McDermott said, “because they were a pretty bad label and weren’t doing any good for anybody, really.
“EMI led you to believe that you were going to be the next Eddie Vedder any day now, but it would never happen – and not just for me, everybody there. Like David Gray … he was on EMI too, and we couldn’t sell a dozen records between us, and now he’s doing great.”
For the next four years, times were tough for McDermott. He found himself falling into a shell.
“It was so confusing,” he said, “because I had gotten signed when I was so young and then you wake up and you’re like 28 and the company closes. I was like, ‘God, how do people get record deals?’ I didn’t really know. When I was 20, it kind of fell into my lap. I was never one of those earnest, hard-working, local singer-songwriter guys that passes around tapes to everyone he shakes hands with. I was bewildered; ‘do I call people I know? Can you sign me?’ “
His inner turmoil worsened with drug use, enough to frighten family members and friends. One friend in particular, Dave Reidy, helped snap him out of it.
“We went to high school together. In fact, I took his starting guard position on the basketball team,” McDermott said, with a laugh. “That’s how we met. He’s a friend and a fan. We were always in touch; he would come down and be supportive. He saw how fucked up I was getting all the time. He kind of kicked me in the ass and got me pointed in the right direction. It got to the point where he said, ‘Dude, you’ve got to get a hold of yourself.’
“Eventually, he became my manager. And look what’s come from that; I got signed again. I’m thankful to him for a lot. He’s on me for staying out too late; he’s worried about me all the time, which is a nuisance. It’s like having another mother. It keeps me honest.
“All this sounds like a rock ‘n’ roll cliche, but it’s never easy. You really do have to take it one day at a time. The days are okay; it’s the nights that are dangerous. It’s a challenge, and I love a challenge.”
McDermott was so up to the challenge, he decided to release his next album, “Bourbon Blue,” on his own Wanted Man Records in 1999. He pounded the pavement and stuffed envelopes, like any do-it-yourselfer. It sold more than 10,000 copies in the Midwest, sparking interest from Koch.
For “Last Chance Lounge,” McDermott remixed and remastered five songs off “Bourbon Blue,” including the first single, “Junkie Girl,” and recorded eight new tracks. He co-produced them with Joe Hardy (The Replacements, Steve Earle, Tom Cochrane).
“Junkie Girl” is a prime example of why McDermott was worthy of that early adulation. Cut from the melodic mold of Stone Temple Pilots’ “Sour Girl,” it examines a self-destructive relationship with a former girlfriend who was a heroin addict.
“Whether it’s out of curiosity or concern, I’m not sure, but I was thinking about her the other night, thinking of tracking her down,” he said, “but her phone’s been disconnected. I know where her father lives, but he probably wouldn’t be real happy to hear from me. If that became a hit, what a story that would make, maybe a made-for-TV movie.”
McDermott isn’t going to fret about how “Last Chance Lounge” does. In fact, after his big-label experiences, he’s understandably cautious about Koch’s ability to deliver.
“I try not to think about it,” he said, “because then you get too caught up with thinking like who buys the record in Des Moines, Iowa. It can swallow you. ‘Oh shit, we only sold two records in Tulsa. They’re playing the song, so what’s the problem?’ I just do what I do. It’s tough to have faith in record companies because they’re usually so inept.
“I think I made one better record than this, and that didn’t do anything. This is a really good record. We’ll see how well it does. It’s encouraging to me, though, when I see someone like David Gray, where he’s not getting a lot of radio airplay but he’s still selling 700 tickets wherever he goes. People are talking about him; it’s a word-of-mouth thing.”
He’s never met Gray, but he laughs thinking about the two sharing EMI horror stories some day.
“Wow, what a terrible conversation we would have,” he said. ” ‘Hey, remember that A&R guy? What a jerk.’ EMI stood for Every Musical Idiot. I still can’t believe Prince signed with them. I mean, Prince, what was he thinking? You’re Prince, for chrissake.”
BWF (before we forget): Lounge with Michael McDermott on the Web @ www.michael-mcdermott.com. … The Michael McDermott album discography – “620 W. Surf” (Giant, 1991); “Gethesmane” (SBK/EMI, 1993); “Michael McDermott” (EMI, 1995); “Bourbon Blue” (Wanted Man, 199); “Last Chance Lounge” (Koch, 2000).