Mike Tramp – “the reason I came to America was David Lee Roth”


In my book, Mike Tramp is the definition of a true musician; a guy who cares about his art and the way he tries to convey his message to all those willing enough to listen to his songs and pay close attention to his thoughtful lyrics. But let’s start with the basics. Everyone knows White Lion and probably Freak of Nature. But what most people don’t know is that Mike Tramp has a long and prolific solo career with great songs that all classic rock fans should check out.

photo: George Anasontzis, Rockpages.gr

On the occasion of our visit to Copenhagen for two Bruce Springsteen concerts we arrange a meeting with Mike at the place where he spent his childhood years. “You can trace my heart and DNA here,” Mike tells us, and we have every reason to believe him since we are only a few meters from his childhood home. The meeting is arranged at a coffee shop in Mike’s neighborhood, right next to the church he attended as a boy so there is an expected thrill. Mike has a rich personal career and is extremely proud of it. “Most musicians of my generation have made a maximum of three solo albums. I’ve done thirteen….and they all tell a story. My story at that particular moment in time. I need to express myself through music…it’s always been that way. Just imagine that the day White Lion ended, I started Freak of Nature which represented exactly what White Lion wasn’t. We were a band of friends and not just a band,” Mike tells us and you can clearly see in his eyes that he means it. In fact, he totally agrees when we tell him that in earlier interviews at the time, he stated that Freak of Nature’s first album was the best thing he had done as a musician.

The heart of White Lion has always been Mike and Vito Bratta. “It was one of the problems with the other two members of White Lion since I was writing the songs with Vito so most of the money was going to us. With Freak of Nature we were all equals although I used all my White Lion money to start the band. I have to tell you though, as much chemistry as I had with Vito when we were writing White Lion songs, we weren’t friends, at least in the true essence of the word! We never had the slightest problem when we were writing songs but when we were done we never spent any time together. I was mountain-climbing, going to the gym, riding my bike, spending time with my friends while Vito kept to himself and went into his darkness! We never went out together. All we did was write songs together.”

We say to Mike that White Lion were in the right place at the right time…unlike Freak of Nature where they found themselves in the middle of grunge domination. “You’re 100% right,” Mike agrees. “We knew it…we could see it. That’s why I told the other members of Freak of Nature that we would have to hang in there and it might take 6-7 albums to establish ourselves as a band and play a lot of shows to 500-1000 people. We knew we weren’t going to make the success of White Lion, it was a different time. It was a big surprise to me when during our second tour for “Gathering of Freaks” I saw the rest of the guys not holding up and losing their energy and passion. My thinking then and now is like the old Clint Eastwood movies: keep moving forward at all costs…no retreat, no surrender! Most people can’t handle that.”

The conversation turns to Mike’s first solo album, the excellent “Capricorn”. “Sakis, the day Freak of Nature played their last show in Paris in February 1995, I had already started writing the first songs of “Capricorn”. I can’t for the life of me accept getting up the next day and not having a plan”, Mike tells us emphatically and when we add that in “Capricorn” his influences from Springsteen, Dylan, Petty, etc. are seen for the first time, Mike agrees as now every lyric and every note represented solely him and not a band. “Yeah…you’re right,” Mike tells us. “I clearly showed my influences. You know…when Vito and I wrote ‘Broken Heart’, the song started with a ‘Nebraska’ (Bruce Springsteen) style. But we knew we wanted to do a Van Halen kinda band so we were going to do the song differently. That was the difference between us and bands like Motley Crue. Our lyrics were definitely more conscious…to this day most people don’t know what “Cry For Freedom” or “Little Fighter” is all about. If you look at the lyrics of “When The Children Cry”, you’ll see that the song could very well have been written in 2023…it’s timeless, really! And to think I wrote it in 1985 during the Reagan administration when America was very, very strong and there was a prosperity in the country. All the bands were writing love songs for MTV and we were releasing as a single a song like “When The Children Cry” with totally out of place lyrics. I remember telling Atlantic Records that I can’t write songs about asses and tits. We’re not Motley Crue or Poison. We’re a different band. I’m really glad that nowadays people are paying attention to the lyrics and understand now what these songs are all about”.

photo: George Anasontzis, Rockpages.gr

As we keep talking and going back in time, Mike reveals that as a kid he used to listen to a lot of NWOBHM and when we tell him that this is something we didn’t know, he says it was something that came after Springsteen, Dylan etc. “There was ‘On Through The Night’ (Def Leppard), ‘Wheels of Steel’ (Saxon), ‘Ace of Spades’ (Motorhead)…I listened to those albums a lot. I didn’t like the musical identity of punk…actually, I could never identify with anything beyond the whole punk attitude. Musically it didn’t say anything to me at all. That’s why I turned to NWOBHM…it had the attitude of punk but with the right music. However, I want to emphasize something. The reason I came to America wasn’t Springsteen or Dylan…it was David Lee Roth! I wanted to be a singer like David Lee Roth and be in a band like Van Halen. Everything in America in the 80s revolved around the show. All the magazines of the time…Circus, Hit Parader, Metal Edge were interested in hearing a good one-line from the musicians and having 2-3 good pictures of them. They were not interested in serious lyrics and stories. But that was also the audience the magazines were aimed at. But I was a divided frontman. On the one hand I had to shout to the girls at the gigs: lift up your shirts and on the other hand I had to tell a story because that’s who I was. I remember playing with White Lion at Wembley. Headliners were Motley Crue, then us and the opening act was Skid Row. It was the tour for “Big Game”. Before we went out, I remember doing an interview with NME magazine and telling them that we were closer to the Beatles and at the same time we were wearing spandex, the fancy clothes and the hair was full of hairspray! Also, next to us were the Skids and Crue (laughs)! But at the concert, when I started talking about the environment before “Little Fighter”, the audience and the other guys in the band…froze! They weren’t expecting it. It was 1989 and we were an American hard rock band.

When we tell Mike that he must have felt like an outsider in this whole climate, he agrees and points out that this is how the music industry was in the 80s and he had to adapt to this situation. “Imagine, what was going on in joint press conferences with Crue and the Skids talking about chicks and the whole debauchery on the road, and me having to be the cool frontman of White Lion”.

We go back to the days of “Pride” and Mike tells us that it was exactly like the recording of Van Halen’s first album. “We knew the songs inside out because we had been playing them at our concerts for two plus years…exactly like Van Halen had been doing before their first album. That’s why “Pride” sounds like our first real album. On the other hand, “Big Game” is the totally opposite for a number of reasons but basically because we didn’t have the time.

photo: George Anasontzis, Rockpages.gr

And how about any unreleased White Lion songs…are there any? “Well, there’s only one really that’s been around, somewhere in the internet world, called “Back on the Streets”. Vito and I approached our records like a book…we wanted to have complete chapters and it’s the same way with my solo albums. We were very focused. You know what…lots of people don’t know that but we wrote “Big Game” in 10 days! The problem with that record is not the quality of the songs…you just need to have time to live with these songs and play them with the band. We wrote the songs and went straight into the studio. “Pride” came out really great because we had been playing those songs all over the clubs…from 1985 up to 1987. In the bootleg world, there’s a version of “Pride” of 1986…this was the mix that we did in Germany. When we returned to America, we re-arranged the songs and tested the album so many times before it finally came out in 1987. That’s why it sounds so good. From my perspective, “Big Game” is a half-ass album”, Mike underlines, despite the fact that it achieved significant success especially with the singles “Little Fighter” and “Cry For Freedom”.

We turn the conversation over to “Mane Attraction” and we express our point of view to Mike by telling him that this is one of the most qualitative albums by White Lion. Mike agrees and adds: “We wrote that album in 1990 and we had plenty of time in our hands to work on the songs. That’s why it came out better than “Big Game”. Also, it was evident back then that we were consciously removing ourselves from the hair metal movement and finding ourselves closer to…let’s say Journey, Kansas or Cheap Trick. Even on the “Mane Attraction Tour”, I remember standing in front of the audience singing the songs; telling stories and not running around like all the other hard rock bands of the day. You know what…a few weeks ago, we played Sweden Rock Festival in front of 30.000 people. We were playing songs from White Lion and I was dressed in a similar, modern way like I used to in the 80s. But, my heart was not into it. I was not at home, at all, even though I’ve been playing some favorite songs of mine. I don’t want to be a clown…I am a musician who keeps going forward. On the other hand, a few days later, in Spain, I had my Telecaster on and I did my interpretation of those songs like I want them to be and it was a great show! Sakis, you said to me earlier that you can hear in White Lion traces of what I did later on with my solo records. And you are right. That’s what I did in Spain…it’s my sound on those classic songs. And that’s make the whole thing more honest and genuine”.

Of course, the big question is if he would ever consider doing one more White Lion Tour with Vito on board. Mike responses almost immediately: “But the thing is that Vito will never come out of his house. Tell you what…even if there was a Live Aid huge concert…for Ukraine or something, and there was an offer for White Lion, Vito would still say “no”! When I played in New York, he didn’t want to have dinner with me despite the fact that we had been talking on the phone and he’s really proud of my guitarist (Marcus)! He says that he would feel awkward playing in the clubs in front of people holding their cell phones. I have to respect Vito because I somehow understand his way of thinking. Any amount of money is not sufficient enough to bring out Vito of the shades. We are still friends with Vito…I am sure that Vito wants people to remember him the way he was 30-35 years ago. Of course, it’s extremely sad because without Vito, I wouldn’t have had a career with White Lion…he’s still my brother. We accomplished so many things together. Also bear in mind that not every reunion works…most of them don’t”.

The conversation went on and on…we found ourselves talking about Queen, Journey, AC/DC, Springsteen, Thin Lizzy, KISS etc. Mike is definitely one of those guys who knows music history but most importantly knows the way the music business works. After all, he’s been there, survived it all and he’s here to tell the story almost 40 years since the world heard for the first time his voice. Come to think about it, a careful listener will hear and learn Mike’s story through his songs…and there are lots of them. So, do yourself a favor and listen to those great Mike Tramp solo records. Trust us…you will be in for a great, unforgettable musical journey!

Sakis Nikas

P.S. “A big shout out and thanks to Michael Andersen from Target Records and of course to Mike Tramp himself for his wonderful hospitality”.  

photo: George Anasontzis, Rockpages.gr