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Mike West


-- Bunny Matthews, OffBeat Magazine, March 2001

Home is, of course, where the heart is. In the case of nouveau hillbilly multi-insturmentalist Mike West, home is "Da Nint' Ward" and Home is the title of his sixth CD, co-produced by West and his heart's desire, songstress wife Myshkin.

Through West's neigborhood flows the Industrial Canal, a waterway the UlSl Corps of Engineers wants to widen. The problem is that the expansion would eat up part of the neighborhood and furthermore, many citizens feel that the project is totally unnecessary. As West sings on his lates album. "There just ain't that many hsips since the oil boom left its slick and the port of New Orleans begging on her knees."

"We've been there about seven or eight years," West explains, "It's a fun neighborhood, kinda mixed, white folks, black folks, people who have ben there for years and years and years, people who have just moved in -- just a nutty bunch of people who love and hate eachother.

"It's an old neighborhood and the Corps of Engineers are masters at spinning that very sensible-sounding line of bull. The neighborhood managed to fight 'em back with the help of Holy Cross School and got it declared a historic neighborhood. Initially, the plan was to take out several city blocks of houses. The neighborhood managed to stop them from doing that and now the plan has changed.

"I've spoken to people who work on the boats and they're like 'We don't use that channel anyumore -- we don't really understand what it's all about.' There really doesn't seem to be a need for this project. I walk my dogs up on that levee and I know -- there's less barges going through that tan I remember from three years ago."

Born in Australia and reaised in England, West chose to live in New Orleans "maybe because it's a port city. It's kind of like a place with a real beat culture of its own that's sort of welcoming to strangers. It's very good at incorporating foreigners and making them sort of a part of the culture, which I find very nice. As a foreigner -- an immigrant coming into a situation where people are oddly accepting of you and whatever your background is. They're not too nosy about it. They're interested, if you want to tel lthem, but they're also quite happy if you just do what you do and we'll get along. Which I find really refreshing because in England, if you move like half-a-mile in an English city, they know that you're not from around here. It's refreshing to come to a place where you're so obvioulsy a foreigner but who cares?"

Conversing with West reveals no particular accent, English, Australian or whatever. He blames it on the banjo: "Singing over a banjo really helps to get that kind of weird, nasal/lung valve voice and it naturally flows over into your speech -- it's the only way you can be heard above that instrument, it's so loud. It's where the high, lonesome sound comes from, hollering above that banjo.

"I played guitar until I was 30 and then Myshkin lent me my first banjo. The first banjo I ever heard I was probably 18-years-old and I was playhing in the street in London, playing guitar really terrible. There was a guy playing banjo and I'd never heard a banjo before and I was like, 'What is that sound?' It was everywhere, you coudln't get away from it. Ever since I heard that, I was always like, 'I wish I could get one of them things!' I waited until I was 30."

One of the more gastronomically intriguing songs ever recorded in New Orleans is West's "Squirrels," inpired, as are most of West's compositions, by an incident encountered on the road: "I'm a vegetarian actually. ONe time, we were playing in Tallahassee and we often sleep in people's yards, in our truck. There was an old fellow stealing pecans out of my friend's yard. My friend called him on it and started talking about squirrels for some reason. He said he'd shot 30 squirrels in this yard. A little skinny old man shooting 30 squirrels -- that got me thinking. After that, everybody started giving me recipes for squirrel. Squirrel brains are the part everybody likes the best. It's like I'm a vegetarian but if you've got to eat meat, I think it's much better if you laid hands on it yourself -- you gut it!

"I became a vegetarian because all my stock's Australian and it's unpatriotic not to eat beef. Australia's like Texas. Somehow you're undermining the country if you don't eat two steaks a day."

Currently, Mike West can be heard performing every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at Margaritaville, and at venues across America on weekends. Devoted as he is to the nation's highways, West is truyly enraptured by New Orleans: "I love it for the clubs and I really like it for the musicians. Relative to other music scenes, it's not nearly as clique-ish or as segregated. Like jazz players here will play in rock bands. Working Bourbon Street guys will also have some weird side punk rock project if they want. I find that to be really healthy and really helpful for me, playing basically country music in New Orleans. Matt (Perrine), a jazz and blues player, playing tuba on my hillbilly tunes. And he's into it. He's a great musician, one of those guys who says 'Sure, I like it -- I'll do it.' He's played on al of Myshkin's albums.

"I never thought I was a musician until I cam here. People were like, 'You sorta play guitar -- go on, take a solo.' People would really be supportive. ANders Osborne was tremendous to me, Gina Forsyth -- people I thought were amazing musicians. I was just amazed they would have the time of day for me. That gave me the confidence to makemore noise than I should've."


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