Interview with John Michael Roch

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John Michael Roch has a long music career that began in the late ‘60s and continues on to this day, but it wasn’t until 1976 that he released his first solo album – With You In My Arms. A record that was unknown to collectors until the psychedelic scholar Patrick Lundborg got hold of a copy of this lost gem. He understood its musical and esoteric quality, which in the end resulted in a reissue on Subliminal Sounds done by the label owner and longtime friend Stefan Kéry. Only a few copies are known to exist of the original pressing (I only know of two) and the recent reissue is for the first time introducing the music of With You In My Arms to the wider audience, which it truly deserves. The album has similar qualities as some of the great psychedelic singer-songwriters of the late ‘70s and has been compared to the likes of Justen O’Brian and Michael Angelo (but it also reminds me of Jade Stone at times). Although, in the end the record reflects John Michael Roch’s own artistic vision more than drawing inspiration from other musicians, which is what you always search for in a record like this.

He was born in Spain in 1947 but at a very early age he moved with his family to Cuba, where he lived until the early ‘60s when he alone managed to escape the communist regime. He first came to a refugee camp in Florida but was soon after moved to Los Angeles, where he in 1966 was reunited with his family again. In 1968 he joined his first professional band Wax as a bass player but would soon switch to drums, which became his main instrument for the rest of his career. It was also when he became a member of Wax they told him “never to sing again”, which he didn’t and explains the lack of his vocals on With You In My Arms. In the ‘70s he joined a band called Mighty Dog and became part of the L.A. hard rock scene, here he further developed his songwriting abilities as one of the main songwriters of the band. However, many of the songs didn’t fit the image of the band and that’s how the idea to With You In My Arms came to be. On this album John Michael Roch was free to take a different musical direction and to follow his own creative path to create an album full of dreamy psychedelic vibes and stories of broken hearts. I believe the unusual musical background (in the field of psychedelic private presses) also contributes to the uniqueness of the album and the only traces of heavy rock can sometimes be heard in the guitar playing.

Below is an interview with John Michael Roch regarding his debut solo album - With You In My Arms. We hope the interview will shed some light about this mysteriously lost record and the music of John Michael Roch. 

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You have said that “1976 was an amazing year for music lovers and music makers”, could you please try to explain the atmosphere in L.A. at that time and how you experienced it?

Well, let me start by saying that I think that the 60’s were revolutionary as it pertains to the music industry. Rock music and its many variations were the dominant force in music as far as I’m concerned. The 70’s being just an extension of what was started a few years earlier but more refined, more polished. Guitar solos were more melodic and more intricate… drummers more refined, the musicianship improved immensely and by 1976 amazing bands were releasing fantastic records. I was always drawn to the “heavier” side of music. Bands like Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Uriah Heep to name a few… they were and still are my basic inspiration… that and minor chords as you can probably tell by my songs. I think that L.A. was the birthplace of many acts that we all know and the place where bands came from all over to “make it”… we had a great club scene in those days. Very good bands like Boston, Heart and Van Halen were just starting out while some of the more established acts like Kansas, Thin Lizzy and The Eagles were dominating the airwaves. I was the drummer for Mighty Dog, an L.A. based heavy rock band (remember that heavy rock then was not what heavy rock or metal is now). We played the same clubs that Van Halen did… we became the house band at Gazzarri’s after they left to perform at the Starwood and a while later we followed. We also shared dates at the Rock Corporation in Van Nuys. Another local band of that time was Airborn who would later become Dokken. That same year we started writing material that would be recorded the following year to what would be the first and only Mighty Dog album. I wrote the bulk of the music and lyrics and during that process new musical ideas were born which eventually would become With you in my arms.

 Were there any other musicians at that time and place making similar music as you did on With You In My Arms?

 Playing drums with Creation in 1970

Playing drums with Creation in 1970

 To tell you the truth, I was not aware of other musicians playing that type of romantic – story telling songs but of course, I assume it existed. I know now that Air Supply released their first album in 1976 but I think they achieved success a few years later. By the way, I’m in no way comparing myself to Air Supply, I like them a lot and I think they’re great, all we have in common is that we’re contemporaries. Perhaps the “singer/songwriter” acts like Eric Carmen, Elvin Bishop, Hall and Oates but I never really identified with that type of music.

You played with Mighty Dog at the time of the recording of this album but did you play in any other previous bands?

I played in a band while I was in high school, I played bass then and the guitarist was a friend of mine, Tommy Croucier, Juan Croucier’s brother who went on to play bass for Dokken, Ratt and other popular metal acts. I also played in a band called Wax in the beach cities near Los Angeles, that’s when I switched from bass to drums. I toured the mid-west with a band named Creation and that was a lot of fun. Later I played with Mother Funk with whom I recorded my first album in 1971. Then came Mighty Dog… we were together for 5 years and that’s when I started to get serious about writing.

Could you please tell me a little bit about your earlier bands Wax and CreationWhich years was this and what kind of music did you play? 

 John Michael Roch in his red Mustang

John Michael Roch in his red Mustang

Wax was probably the first band I was in that worked regularly for pay. We joined the Musicians Union in Hollywood, Local #47 in order to be able to play “better” clubs and get paid union wages, around $150 a week which in 1969 was very decent money for a 22 year old long haired bass player who couldn’t sing. It was around this time when on “slow nights” I would switch instruments with the drummer (Dale Gelsing) who also played guitar, bass and sang. I was fascinated by the drums and adapted very rapidly… eventually I would switch permanently… I bought his drums (a nice Ludwig kit) and I sold him my Fender Precision bass and amp. We played the top 40 hits of that time, whatever was on the radio, CCR, Rolling Stones, Spirit, Grassroots… etc. For a kid with a red Mustang convertible, playing in a rock n’ roll band in Los Angeles… well, it was as close to Nirvana as one can get.

After Wax broke up, Dale and I remained together, we added a new bass player and a lead vocalist. He switched to guitar changed our name to Creation and after playing a couple of clubs in town we were signed to a contract with a management firm that provided touring bands to venues across the country. That’s how Creation ended up playing throughout the Mid-West… from Iowa to Michigan and all places in between… this was early 1970. We continued to play “cover tunes” (radio music) for the dancing crowds of Middle America. It truly was a lot of fun. We came back from the road (late 1970) and went our separate ways. Dale went back on the road and joined one of the bands we played with… he later moved to Las Vegas where he continued to play and write music. He sadly passed away in 2012.     

You mentioned that you recorded your first album with Mother Funk. Can you please tell me a little bit about that record?  

I was driving along Sepulveda Boulevard one afternoon and I saw some long haired guy holding a guitar case hitch hiking. I don’t normally pick up strangers on the road but assuming he was a musician in need of a ride I stopped and picked him up. His name was Jake Schultz, he was in a band in need of a drummer and I couldn’t resist the invitation. Mother Funk having a sax and trumpet player had the ability to play a different variety of cover music… hence the “funk” aspect. Also somewhat blues oriented. Based in Venice Beach in 1971, we played local clubs and beach festivals. A great group of guys. Here we started, as a band, to write original material and I joined in. Here’s where I got “the bug” to write songs. We had a number of originals that we wanted to record and press an indie disc that we could sell (or give away) at gigs. We recorded the album in one afternoon, in a room with a microphone hanging from the ceiling on a 2 track machine. I still have an original copy of the record which is self-titled. There are some good blues tunes on it and a cover song… “For what it’s worth” by Buffalo Springfield but in an upbeat version… very cool. We had a large following in the Venice area and sold out the local clubs. One thing I need to mention which I’ve always found interesting. Jake had a very nice little “scruffy” dog and his name was… Jake.

 The album cover - designed by John Michael Roch's brother.

The album cover - designed by John Michael Roch's brother.

Many of the songs on With You In My Arms have a pop song quality with a commercial potential. Did you have any intention for this album to be commercially successful or was it a project you did just to get the songs out of the system?

I think the latter… of course as a musician and/or songwriter you always hope that somehow your music will be heard by as many people as possible and perhaps get a record deal and sell a million copies but in reality you just hope to make a nice album that you are happy with.

How many copies of the album were pressed originally and how did you sell them?

I pressed 100 units and gave 99 of them away to friends and family and the young ladies that inspired the songs themselves. I have one copy gathering dust along with the rest of my record collection.

Did you send any copies to local radio stations, record labels etc.?

No, not really… at the time I didn’t think the quality of the music was good enough to be heard by anyone but the people who knew me and knew I meant well, LOL… don’t get me wrong, I like the songs a lot but at the time I just wanted to tell stories and experiment with different instrumentation.

Did you perform any of these songs live and as a solo artist?

Never… it was strictly a studio project.

Were all of the songs written during 1976?

Yes, as far as I can remember I wrote them during the spring and summer of ’76.

Were there more songs recorded during the sessions of the album that were never released?

No, only the songs that made it to the record.

There is a dark and melancholic vibe in the music, and the same feeling is reflected in the cover design. Do you agree on this and is this the feeling that you wanted to mediate?

Wow, I never thought about it that way. First the cover… my brother Raul came up with the design and since there were no computers at the time to create graphics he did everything by hand and took the photo. I never questioned the direction of the cover, I liked it and went with it. I’m sure that if asked he would tell you that every bit of the details have meaning but I think he would be making it up… he said at the time that he was trying to achieve an “airy, floating and dreamy” feel but it’s just a design. The music… I think that the fact that I truly love minor chords (I still write with them) and they themselves can project more emotion and drama than major chords (in my opinion, of course) that in itself created the mood of which you speak. I don’t think I did it intentionally… I just wanted the stories to be told and for the music to convey the feeling that the lyrics portrayed. I think that was accomplished.

You have said that the lyrics come from real life experience and there is a broken love theme throughout the record. I would not like to open any old wounds here but could you share any of the experiences that inspired you?

Well yes… those wounds would be about 40 years old now so hopefully well healed… For example, while playing at a local club where we were the house band (Mighty Dog) I met this girl, woman actually, late twenties and very good looking whose husband had recently left her for someone else. Her name was Kathy and she would come to the club and we became friends and unfortunately for me that’s as far as it went but regardless, she would tell me about being in her house and how alone she felt and trying to find a job and the usual sad stories that accompany this type of situation… Lonely Lady was born. Mighty Dog’s lead singer, Jim McKay, originally from Memphis, Tennessee used to tell me about a girlfriend he had when he lived in the South and how much it hurt to break up when he moved to California etc. So, trying to look at the situation through his eyes I wrote A song for Paige (Paige being her name). Not all the songs were based on real life events but most were. I find, when writing lyrics, that sad and tragic seem to come easier than bright and happy and that’s strange because I’m a very happy-go-lucky type person with an interesting sense of humor (or so I think). It’s been my experience that most of us at least once have gone through a sad experience when it comes to romance hence a song that tells a similar story appeals to people who can relate because the same thing happened to them.

  Mighty dog  in concert

Mighty dog in concert

The synthesizers add to the dreamlike atmosphere of the record. How did you end up using synthesizers on the record considering you hadn’t played that instrument before?

Synthesizers… I love them, I own a bunch of them and I’m still amazed at what they can do every time I play them. Remember that in 1976 this was still a fairly new instrument and luckily Mighty Dog had a 2 voice Oberheim and an Orchestron which I could use… I think that the studio (Media Art in Hermosa Beach) also had a synth for client use, an ARP string ensemble if I remember correctly. As far as playing keyboards… the band used to rehearse at my house, I had converted the garage into a practice studio and we all left our instruments there. In between practice sessions (on our days off) I would go to the “studio” and play the Hammond organ teaching myself simple chords and I apparently had a knack for melodies so that’s how it started. That’s where I also wrote the songs for Mighty Dog. Of course, I would always take the skeleton of each song with my lyrics to Herb, our keyboard player or Heinz, our guitarist to properly set the chords and make sure everything sounded correctly and thus the songs were born. As far as the solo project, I worked with Henry and Luis putting the music together using the same method and then Chuck would fine tune the melody using my lyrics. Henry eventually (years later) became a big fan of Yngwie Malmsteen and had a tendency to play a bit fast and did so in other recordings we did for other people.

What was the reason you didn’t handle the vocals on the album, considering that you wrote the songs?

If you ever heard me sing this question would never be asked again. LOL… I actually like to sing and periodically will lock myself in the studio and record myself singing one of my songs and the results are always the same… contact a real vocalist. The horrible part is that when I have a new song to record and I meet with the vocalist (man or woman) I need to teach them the song so I have no choice but to sing… however, they are always warned in advance and I try to have lots of wine on hand.

Did the other musicians playing on the album continue to record and make music?

Well, I have… I’m putting the final touches to my 13th solo project which should be out hopefully in August (2015). Chuck and I have been in touch occasionally, he and his wife live near San Francisco. I don’t think he’s doing anything musically although we have talked about the possibility of doing something together even perhaps some of these songs (with newer musical versions). Henry and Luis I have lost touch with, not intentionally but after all this time and so many personal changes sometimes it’s hard to keep track of people. I’m assuming they continued to play, I think playing music sooner or later becomes akin to an addiction and it’s hard to kick the habit.

Could you please tell me something on how the recording went about? Anything that was particularly memorable that comes to mind?

Unfortunately nothing spectacular happened during the sessions. Mighty Dog would record an album there the following year. Dave Tarling (the owner and engineer) and Spot, his assistant would later become very involved in recording many well-known punk rock acts such as Black Flag. I don’t remember any specifics but I’m sure pizza and alcohol were involved.

One of my favorite songs is Memories. Do you remember how you came up with that song?

 I like Memories as well… I know that I had this idea about the four seasons which gave me the lyrics for the first verse… with summer and winter and all that. I also remember that I was writing about someone finding love with someone you always had in front of you but didn’t realize it and then loosing that love. I’m sure there’s a name attached to this song but I truly don’t remember.

On Silver Rain you use a phaser effect (?) on the drums, which in my opinion gives the song a nice psychedelic flavor. What was your intention with using this effect on this particular song?

I had to go back to the studio (just now) and listen to the recording and you are correct… I don’t remember having anything to do with that phaser or flanger bit. I assume that it may have been one of Dave’s new “toys” (Dave being the recording engineer, Ed. note) and he tried it out on the drums and we all must have liked it… sounds very cool.

Almost 40 years have passed since the release. Why do you think it took until today before someone recognized it?  

Great question… I think that the fact that there were only 99 copies available in the world and there was never any effort to market the album, it’s short of miraculous that a few collectors found it and of course through the Internet it became “visible”. I’m really jazzed about the fact that Stefan Kéry took notice and has been kind enough to re-release this ancient musical “gem” and of course, you as well for allowing me to relate a few bits of information about this record… thank you both.

What was the next step in your music career after this album?

Writing and recording With You In My Arms was a lot of fun and I think it planted the idea in my head that I could actually do this type of music which I started doing in 1988. Right after the album was done I continued with Mighty Dog until around 1980, we did an independent album which I like very much and recorded a single for ABC records which was never released. Our attorney was also involved with the “Sex Pistols” and since punk and new wave were taking over and our brand of heavy rock n’ roll started to die out we were not working much and that was about the end of the band. Next you cut your hair and then you know it’s over L… You have a family, a wonderful wife, a son and 3 daughters which have now produced 7 grandchildren (soon to be 8) and life changes from the stage lights and smoke machines to family BBQs and children’s birthday parties. I still have a studio and still write and record which is my passion. A few years ago I joined a good friend of mine, Uruguayan pianist Sebastian Sidi and became the band’s keyboard player… we played concerts for about 3 years (you can see them on YouTube) did a television special and had a lot of fun being “the old guy” in the band.

You mentioned that you wrote and produced for other artists besides your own bands. Can you mention some of these artists? Were these songs released?

Some minor local artists… Tom Pugliesi – we recorded a single… don’t think it was ever released. A rock band called “Nova” with a delightful female singer… I wrote a couple of songs and booked a few concerts in town. “Star Rider” and “The Messy Gypsies” whom I also helped with recording and production. Nothing major. The one project I really enjoyed working on was for Venezuelan poet Albert Price, he recorded under the name “Tajarka” I wrote the music and he recited his poetry over the music which I tried to compose to fit the words of the poems. The CD, “Afrolatino” was a nice piece of work in which many local musicians collaborated with me.

Thank you John for your time and generous answers.

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For more info please visit John Michael Roch’s homepage and to purchase With You In My Arms go to the Subliminal Sounds store. The album is also available on Spotify.