1973 Interview


Interviews & Articles


by Michael Pierce

Brewer and Shipley are a downhome, city-transcended, folk duo into guitar, but moreover, into ballads with a relatively mellow rock counterbalance.  Presently living with wives and children on a farm outside Kansas City, their style in song and life is country living, especially after the city routine.  More than likely their music won't make you jump out of your seat and hit the ceiling, but in them is a message which should certainly be more enduring than typical rock jive.  Brewer and Shipley have become one of the first folk duets to make a hit in music since Simon & Garfunkel, and for some reason folk duos just hadn't been coming across until "One Toke Over The Line," "Tarkio Road", and Mike and Tom's versions of "Witchi Tai To," "The Light," "Oh Mommy," "Seems Like A Long Time," and "All Along The Watchtower."

Under the rising stigma of a "folk" label, these two young men have survived a classification which has almost become detrimental to artists in an era of nostalgic rock and roll.  So, how do you get it across?  You begin by bringing in the best people to help put you over, like having Nick "The Greek" Gravenites produce, Jerry Garcia on pedal steel and have Mark Naftalin and the Stone's Nicky Hopkins both work on keyboards, along with letting Bobby Jones pound out a beat.

Mike Brewer is out of Oklahoma City, born in 1944 and Tom Shipley comes from Mineral Ridge, Ohio, in 1942.  Mike had spent most of his early career into music with Tom Mastin for a while, recording an album on Columbia with him.  When Mastin left, Mike settled down as a contract writer for Good Sam Music, an affiliate of A&M Records.

Tom Shipley came out of "cowboy music," and a little trumpet playing.  After graduation from Baldwin Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, he began a job as house musician for a local club.  Dissatisfied, he left in 1967 for California and met Mike.  Mike recalls, "I already had a publishing arrangement with Good Sam, but Tom didn't, so he linked with me in my deal and after writing together for a year we decided to form a duo and perform our own material."

"Well, we just ran into each other at first," Tom recalls.  "We were both traveling around the doing the coffeehouse type thing.  You get in town one day and the other guy will be there.  In fact, a lot of our very close friends right now are people we met in transit as we crisscrossed the country.  Actually, Mike and I first met in Kent, Ohio, at a club called the Blind Owl."   But the combination for creating music didn't occur until they met again in Los Angeles.

Brewer and Shipley began their music together writing for Good Sam and after the city's chaos got to them, they decided to leave for Missouri.  About their move, Mike comments, "Going back to Kansas City was really great.  Working in and around Hollywood sometimes obscures memories of the healthy heartland of America.  Nice to know it's still there."

Then the man behind Buddah Records, Neil Bogart, heard Brewer and Shipley's act and decided to sign them up, planning for the cutting of their first album, Weeds.  The LP included Richard Greene, the fiddler from Seatrain, Michael Bloomfield on lead guitar, and Nicky Hopkins on keyboards.   It was produced by Gravenites.  After touring the country to promote that first record, they released their second, Tarkio, from which "One Toke Over The Line" was pulled and landed in the top ten.  From there it's been up and it's been down.

Personal musical roots run from the early Sixties folk revival and people like Dylan, Fred Neil, and Pete Seeger, to music since, the Beatles, Van Morrison and on.  And from these roots come their songs.  About song writing, Mike says, "If I only knew when that point of conception was, I would write a lot more.  But the fact is I don't know where the songs come from, what they're going to be about or when they're going to happen.  But still, we don't write songs, we put them together.  We'll have all kinds of ideas, all kinds of feels.  Like I made the comment, 'Here's another one in G,' and in fact, a lot of those songs and a good portion of those on the albums were written around just a couple of feels.  But I don't know where the songs come from."

When Mike and Tom are composing music and lyrics, it's usually the music which comes first, "nine times out of ten," and sometimes it happens and other times, not.  They've come to the realization that you can't force a song out of a beautiful piece of music, it has to come naturally and unrestrained.

Neither has a very strong music theory background.  While Tom's mother taught him piano, and he did learn to sight read with the trumpet, he has no idea how to read notes for the guitar.  He also played drums for a while, but that didn't require reading music.  (Interestingly noted, Tom [1] used to be in a band with Jesse Edwin Davis, Taj Mahal's ex-lead guitarist, called Them, which was also the name of an English group.)

The duo has worked in open tunings, mostly modal D and E, but occasionally, modal A and C.  On instrumentation, one uses a Martin D-18 and the other a Guild model F-50, and as of now are pretty much dissatisfied with the quality of guitar strings.  Tom said, "They're all dogs, they all break, go dead and are really inferior.  We've had an incredible time with strings breaking.   On a good night when we're really doing a good show, I'll usually break one and Mike will break three, and that's really a drag.  We cannot find strings that won't break.  We change them every night before shows, too.  But at the moment we're using Martin medium gauge bronze because they're the best for now."

Instead of lugging around a Public Address System, B & S normally hire sound companies, explaining, "We used to carry our own P.A., but you reach a point where a system your could own yourself would be impractical.  You keep needing bigger and bigger systems."

On the subject of microphones, they use Sennheiser (German) mikes, about which Tom says, "There's something about capturing like the acoustic sound without having it hum or feed back, and it's important to be able to get a lot of level, without having the overtones.  Sennheiser seems to be more effective than any mikes we've tried so far.  Usually we get these Shure rock and roll mikes, which are great for rock and roll vocals, but for us, they're a bit rich.  I'm sure there are better mikes, but we haven't found them yet."

The difference from material on stage and on record varies, even with the same song.  As Mike claims, "We'll change a song around quite a bit before we'll record it.  And when we record it, it changes again.  I guess that's the thing about the songs we're doing now, the new songs.  It's odd, but a few of the ones we've written were recorded before we performed them, so now we have to figure out how to play them live and make them come off strong.  You really can't do it the same as you recorded it, because they're actually two different media, totally different.  In fact, I wouldn't want to necessarily reproduce it like it is on record because of it being a different trip."


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  In the end, there is nothing too complex, nothing too intricate about B & S which cannot be understood.  There is no razzle-dazzel guitarwork or complicated passages of the fourth level, but what is there is an open, unpretentious sound of an updated early Sixties repertoire -- a pleasure to hear and see.  

~ Guitar Player Magazine - July/August 1973




            Correction: [1] Paragraph 10 - Michael (not Tom) was in the band with Jesse Ed Davis



Interviews & Articles