By Nick Warburton
US Midwest folk-rock singer/songwriters Brewer & Shipley’s debut album Down In LA was tragically overlooked on its release in October 1968. On the eve of its first ever release on CD by Cherry Red Records’ subsidiary Now Sounds, Nick Warburton talks to Michael Brewer about how they met, their formative years and recording one of his favourite all-time albums.
Nick Warburton (NW): Michael – I believe that you and Tom first met in 1964 at the Blind Owl Coffeehouse in Kent, Ohio?
Michael Brewer: “Yes, that’s correct. I picked up the guitar about 1960/1961 and started performing professionally as soon as I graduated. In 1962, I started travelling the folk circuit. At the time, there was a large circuit of folk rooms right across theUnited States and part of Canada and Tom was doing the same thing when he got out of college. We were both on the folk circuit and we played various folk rooms. We saw each other’s pictures on dressing room walls and finally met in Kent, Ohio.”
NW: I understand you then went out to California in 1965?
Michael Brewer: I’d been out there before but I went out there to live. That’s when Tom Mastin and Dave MacIntosh and I formed a trio. They were from Ohio and I’d also met them at the Blind Owl coffeehouse. We split up and Tom and I continued as a duo. We moved from San Francisco to L.A. Barry Friedman took us in to a studio and recorded a demo of three songs that Mastin and I did and then shopped it around. That’s when Mastin and I got a recording contract with Columbia. Billy Mundi was on drums. There was a whole bunch of musicians on that demo. Jim Fielder and Billy Mundi became our band mates in 1966, about the same time that Buffalo Springfield were forming in the house next door to us.
NW: Together with Buffalo Springfield, Mastin & Brewer opened for The Byrds on a southern California tour and then started to record an album but it was never finished.
Michael Brewer: Those three songs got us a record deal [with Columbia] and one of those songs, “Need You”, was going to be a single (Ed: It was released in late 1966 under the name Brewer & Brewer, featuring Michael with his brother Keith). Anyway, Tom [Mastin] was just a tormented soul. He was one of those kinda guys that when things started going right for him, he had to do something that would mess it up. The Buffalo Springfield and our band were playing at the Whisky A Go Go, and he said he’d met some woman and was going to move in with her and asked me to take his amp to the gig. He never showed up!
Three days later I ran into a mutual friend who told me that they’d just seen him in San Francisco. He was very a talented guy but a tormented soul and committed suicide in the early 1990s. My song, “Truly Right”, which is the first song on our Down In LA album, he was the inspiration for that song. You have to listen to the lyrics and draw your own conclusions. That song was also The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s second single.
NW: Michael, one of the songs on the Mastin and Brewer demo was “Bound To Fall”, which was later covered by Manassas and Brewer and Shipley in the mid-1970s. I was curious why you never featured it on your debut album.
Michael Brewer: Tom [Shipley] and I were writing our own songs so there was no reason for us to do a song that Tom Mastin and I had done. That’s how we became a duo in fact. Allen Stanton, our man at Columbia Records for Mastin and myself, was leaving to join a brand new record label called A&M Records and he took me under his wing as a staff song-writer. Tom [Shipley] came to L.A. and moved right round the corner from me. Speaking of other people in the area, he lived in the house next door to Jim Messina who was working as a recording engineer at the time. Tom and I started writing songs together and I helped him get a job as a staff writer also. We started going into the studio and it didn’t take long for A&M and for us to realise that we had a sound and style of our own.
NW: Is it true that you nearly joined The Association during this time?
Michael Brewer: Yes, I was friends with The Association and when Tom Shipley and I were writing songs together and becoming a duo, I had to decide whether to team up with him or join The Association. They had invited me to join. I would have been the guy singing “Cherish”.
NW: As a song-writing partnership you wrote quite a lot of songs together that were covered by other artists but never recorded by Brewer & Shipley. Another one that you wrote on your own was “Feelin’ Down”, which was recorded by The Poor featuring future Poco and Eagles bass player Randy Meisner. Was this excluded from your debut album because you had so many other songs?
Michael Brewer: Probably so. We probably thought we had other songs that were better plus I think [Shipley’s “Time and Changes” and my “Truly Right”] were the only songs that we wrote individually [for that debut album]. The rest we co-wrote.
NW: HP Lovecraft covered “Keeper of The Keys”. Did they cut that before you recorded your own version for Down In LA?
Michael Brewer: I think it was all happening about the same time. I remember we were invited to go to the studio and hear their version of it. It’s always interesting to hear other people’s renditions of your songs and it wasn’t what we had in mind at all. It was kinda of shocking actually.
NW: Tell me about the recording of your debut album because Russell Bridges is obviously Leon Russell.
Michael Brewer: Allen Stanton took me to A&M Records. He was kinda a square peg in a round hole. He wore a suit and tie, and had short hair that was not 1966! He was producing us and he just didn’t get the concept we were going for. It didn’t take any of us long to realise that it just wasn’t working, so he turned us on to a guy called Jerry Riopelle, who took us to finish the album. He took us up to Leon’s home studio – Skyhills Studios. That’s where we finished Down In LA, re-did some things and Leon played all of the keyboards.
NW: That’s what’s interesting about all of your albums. You’ve always got top class musicians on all of them. There’s Joe Osborn and Hal Blaine for instance on Down In LA.
Michael Brewer: We’ve been really blessed to work with all the musicians that we have worked with. There’s also Jim Gordon on drums and Jim Messina played bass. He was a friend and a musician. We worked on that album in 1967 and 1968.
NW: Can you remember which tracks you did with Allen Stanton?
Michael Brewer: I really can’t to be honest. We may have done the basic tracks with him. It was mostly the strings and horns that just weren’t working at all. He actually brought in a newcomer at the time, Nick De Caro, who went on to win Grammies for movie scores and TV but a lot of our songs were in modal tuning and he just didn’t get the concept of modes. The orchestrations he had would sound like scary music. We had to scrap most of it.
NW: What was the inspiration behind some of the songs that you and Tom wrote together? For instance, tell me about “Keeper of the Keys”.
Michael Brewer: The “Lord of The Rings” trilogy was really big at the time. Everyone was reading that, so that played in there. Also, it’s a little political commentary of the times. There was the Civil Rights movement and the war inVietnam. They were crazy times but they don’t even compare with today!
NW: Is there any story behind one of my personal favourites – “An Incredible State of Affairs”?
Michael Brewer: We were living in L.A. and it was a reflection of that. Hell was popping. It was just crazy. [Coming from the Midwest] everything was wide open to say the least. It was an ‘incredible state of affairs’. I couldn’t drive four blocks to the grocery store at the time without being pulled over by the LAPD and having the seat pulled out of my car and being frisked and everything, just because they could and we were hippy-looking guys. I would walk to the grocery store and they would still hassle me.
NW: The song “Mass For M’Lady” is very different to the rest of the album with a very gothic feel.
Michael Brewer: Tom and I both have very different inspirations. A song that we co-wrote, it’ll mean something different to him than it does to me. I was thinking about my young sister at the time… There was some recording studio in L.A. that had a great big pipe organ out of a church and of course Leon played that. With his hair and beard and everything he looked like the Phantom of the Opera. I’ll never forget that.
NW: Was the title track of the album a cynical look at life in L.A. at the time?
Michael Brewer: No, actually the line is “Dreamin’ in the shade, and I think I saw Missouri”. We were already wanting to get the hell out of there, which we did. As soon as we finished Down In LA, we left and ended up back in Kansas City, Missouri. That’s when we started Good Karma Productions. There had to be better way to be in the business, make music and do what we do without living in L.A., New York or Nashville.
At the time, if you didn’t live in those places, the industry didn’t even think you were serious about it. They literally thought we’d given up and gone home and that’s how we got out of our contract with A&M Records so easily. They didn’t think we were in the business anymore.
NW: You’ve worked with Tom now over 40 years. How would you describe your collaboration?
Michael Brewer: We like each other as people first of all. We came from the same background, had the same interests and the same focus. We really enjoy writing together. We have never ever had a contract between us of any kind. That’s why we named the company Good Karma Productions. We still believe that a man is always as good as his word and a handshake should do it.
Thanks Michael for giving up your time to answer my questions.
Read part two of The Brewer and Shipley interview, with Tom Shipley here:
Nick Warburton is a UK-based freelance writer, who has written for Shindig, Record Collector, the Garage Hangover website, Vernon Joynson’s book series and Richard Morton Jack’s Endless Trip.
This interview was carried out in October 2009. A great big thanks goes to Michael Brewer and also Steve Alexander, who provided the photos and runs an excellent site at: brewerandshipley.com
Copyright © Michael Brewer and Nick Warburton, 2012. All Rights Reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without permission from the authors.