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Blood Brothers – Mike Zito

Blood Brothers – A Conversation with Mike Zito

By: Lori Smerilson Carson

When you work hard as a musician to build your career and you partner with another musician who has the same work ethic, you create an equation that equals the Blood Brothers. That is Vocalist/Guitarist/Songwriter/Producer Mike Zito and Vocalist/Guitarist/Songwriter Albert Castiglia, both multi-BMA recipients. In 2022, Zito won Blues Rock Album for this RESURRECTION LP (released in 2021) and Castiglia won Blues Rock Artist.

Now, these two extraordinarily talented blues, roots and rock musicians combined their experience and talents to release their debut BLOOD BROTHERS album which they recruited the incredibly talented musicianship of Joe Bonamassa and Josh Smith. The CD (which was recorded at Dockside Studio in Louisiana) features roots rock songs like their first single release “Hey Sweet Mama”, to more bluesy rock “A Thousand Heartaches” and “In My Soul”, to the straight bluesy, roots rock tunes “No Good Woman” and “Tooth and Nail”. In Addition, Zito and Castiglia are taking this remarkable Blood Brothers collaboration on tour, combining their bands of Drummers Matt Johnson and Ephraim Lowell, Bassist Doug Byrkit and Pianist/Organist Lewis Stephens. South Florida fans had the pleasure to experience this incredible show at The Funky Biscuit in Boca Raton, FL on March 24th.

Catching up with Zito a few days prior to this show, he revealed some details about the new album, the show, some insights to his past and what fans can look forward to.

SFL Music: How did your debut album BLOOD BROTHERS come together with Albert?
Mike Zito: It’s a different project. It’s not an Albert record. It’s not a Mike record. It’s a Mike and Albert record. My suggestion was, let’s just get the best songs. I don’t care where they come from. We want the best songs. All of my favorite artists, when they have an album chocked full of great songs, they didn’t generally write them all. I said, let’s just pick the best songs, and it kind of came from everywhere. I mean, Albert when you look, looks like he only wrote one song. I think he wrote the best song on the whole album.

SFL Music: That’s “A Thousand Heartaches”?Zito: Yes. It’s fantastic. I wrote a few for the record and then we went to a writer in Nashville that I like a lot, named Fred James. We got a couple from him, and then we found a couple songs like one by John Hiatt, one by Graham Drout. Albert likes to do Graham Drout songs. We just picked and threw all these different songs in. It was like at the end, this makes the best record to me. This is the best record.

SFL Music: You also have “Tooth and Nail” from Tinsley Ellis?
Zito: From Tinsley yeah. Tinsley wrote the song for us. He brought it to us; you know old school. “I got a song for you guys. I wrote this song. This is perfect,” and he was right.

SFL Music: Did he just do that? Did you guys talk about it?
Zito: He came to see us in Atlanta last year, and I’ve been friends with him for so long and he goes, “I’m coming to see you and I’m gonna pitch you some songs. I’m gonna bring you a CD with some songs and I have one in particular I really think that you need to record.” And that was it.

SFL Music: “In My Soul” is a beautiful song and it has a very personal background. What inspired you to write that song?
Zito: My wife was diagnosed with cancer last summer and she’s still going through it. It’s like just changed everything, and Albert suggested, “why don’t you write something about how you feel?” and I was like, I don’t even know how to process how I feel. I can’t do that. It’s too close, and so this was kind of the only thing I wrote and I wrote it during, you know, she still has cancer and we’re still doing everything, but it was so shocking last summer. That was the only thing I kind of could come up with. It’s what I need to deal with what’s going on right now.

SFL Music: Well, we’ll keep her in our prayers and send good vibes.
Zito: Thank you.

SFL Music: You’re welcome. I loved how the videos have old movie clips with not just that one, but “Hey Sweet Mama” (and “A Thousand Heartaches”). Where did that idea come from?
Zito: Well, it was my idea. I think it’s fun. My son does video editing and that was the style he used and I liked it. Actually, the bass player in the project also does video and he’s the one who did the videos. I just kind of directed him like, this is exactly what I see. This is what you want us to do, and he did a beautiful job of putting them together.

SFL Music: What inspired the song “Hey Sweet Mama”?
Zito: You know, I wrote that song years ago. I’m a huge Delbert McClinton fan and he had an album with Glen Clark. That was his old-time writing partner. They made an album, I don’t know, ten years ago. It’s a lot of duet, like honky talk, rock and roll and they kind of sing together in harmony. So, I had written that song years ago and never used it and I thought, man its perfect for this band because we can sing it. We sing the entire song in harmony from beginning to end, and I think that’s a unique sound. Albert likes that record as well. So, I kind of dug it up and was like oh, this is a great song for this record.

SFL Music: Joe Bonamassa and Josh Smith are on a couple of songs on the album and they produced it. How did that come about?Zito: Well, I’ve been friends with Joe for over twenty years, friends with Josh. Albert’s known Josh since he was a kid in Florida. We all know each other. Joe’s a pretty regular friend and has been for a long time. He’s really gotten off into producing. Well, Josh is a master at making records. He’s really, really good, and the two of them together have kind of created something and I like what they’ve been doing. Honestly, I didn’t think that Joe would go for it just because most of all the work he does is for his record label and I thought, well he doesn’t want to make a record on my record label, but somebody said, well just ask. I asked him and he was like giddy, like “oh my God! Love to. That’s awesome!” I said, so you don’t mind? It’s not on your label and he was like,” no, no. Not at all. That’s great! It’s no problem.” We had a ball. They’re a really great team. Josh is an arranger. Josh knows what parts to play. We have two guitars. It was important to me that we didn’t jam and make noise, that we played music. And Josh is extremely talented at arranging, and so he was very helpful with hold on, you play this and you play this. You know, creating musical parts and not just getting up there and making noise which is easy to do, and sometimes it works out and sometimes its noise. Making music requires more effort and thought and consideration. So, Josh was very good with that and Joe, Joe just has an ear of what he likes and what he doesn’t like, and he has a great feel for when everybody’s kind of hitting the mark, and I like that too. When Joe says, “man, that’s good” then I’m like, ok then, I think that’s good. It was a lot of fun.


SFL Music: You had some troubles in your past and you turned yourself around and have won four BMA awards? You help a lot of other artists. Is that what prompted you to start Gulf Coast Records?
Zito: Yeah. I mean, I started to produce records about thirteen years ago and that was with Ruf Records. The first record I ever produced was Samantha Fish and Dani Wilde, Cassie Taylor. They did GIRLS WITH GUITARS (released 2011). I didn’t know if that was something I could do, but I had been making my own records since I was a kid. Thomas Ruf believed in me, so I started to do that and make records, produce records, and I would bring artists to Ruf Records. I brought Samantha there. I brought Alley Venable there. I brought Albert Castiglia there. I brought Matt Walker there. I brought Jeremiah Johnson there. I brought a lot of these artists to his label. Just eventually it was like well, I wanted to do something to try to help artists that just won’t ever make it to Ruf Records. They won’t make it on Alligator Records. You know, very few people can get those record deals. So, at first the idea was we would do something a little more low key for maybe beginner artists or starter artists. Then that didn’t last very long because Albert Castiglia left Ruf Records and came to Gulf Coast Records, and then it was like ok, so now we’ll have to be like a real record label. It just turned into this thing. We can’t give everybody a record deal, but I try to help everybody I can. We try to do what we can, but that’s definitely how it got started.

SFL Music: Did you produce records when you were with Royal Southern Brotherhood? Those albums?
Zito: Yeah. I didn’t produce that band, no. I didn’t produce those albums.

SFL Music: What was it like winning those BMA awards?
Zito: It’s amazing. Yeah, it’s phenomenal and I feel like a jerk even saying this, but I have seven.

SFL Music: Wow! Well thank you for updating me.
Zito: I know. I’m not a bragger, but if your gonna print it, I’ll let you know. My wife would give me trouble if I didn’t.

SFL Music: Well, we want to get it right. Albert just won a BMA and is up for another one?
Zito: He’s won a couple. He’s up for two more. He’s got two nominations this year. He’s really doing well.

SFL Music: What would you say made you decide to become a professional musician?
Zito: I always loved music. Nobody in my family ever played music, but I love music. I loved entertaining. As a little kid I loved to sing and dance and get in front of people, and my dad worked a very blue-collar job. He worked for Anheuser-Busch Brewery in St. Louis for forty years and worked really hard. My brother worked there and my brother hated it. As I got older, I just thought, I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to work at the brewery. My brother didn’t want to work there and I definitely didn’t want to work there. I got a job at a music store in my neighborhood in St. Louis and I met guys that played music for a living. I had never been privy to that before, and these guys, like that was their job. There were guys that worked there at the store, and then on the evenings and the weekends they had gigs. I thought, well I could do that. I could do that, and that would be better than working at the brewery. So, then I started there. I started to play on the weekends in a band and I learned to cut my teeth. Learned how to play lots of songs and how to play four hours a night and all that stuff and eventually, I was playing six, seven nights a week. It’s like, yeah, I’m never gonna get a job. This is a job. Like I mean, once I could show my parents that I could make money, then that was ok. And it just kind of became levels of that. I mean, I’m still doing the exact same job. It’s just a different level. Once I saw guys touring and coming through like Tab Benoit, Walter Trout, Tommy Castro, Tinsley Ellis. They were all coming though St. Louis and I saw they were driving around in their vans selling their own CD. I was like, ok. I’m gonna do that. It was just like in increments. Like ok, I think I can do that because I was always writing my own songs, but it was never like oh, I’m gonna go be rich and famous and be a musician. It was never, obviously. If that was the goal, then I have failed miserably because I’m in the roots and blues genre which there’s no fame or fortune, but I love doing it, and it’s a job. It’s definitely hard work, but I’m doing something I enjoy.

SFL Music: So, you taught yourself? How did you learn how to write songs?
Zito: Yeah, I just taught myself. My mother wrote poetry. I think that was something that rubbed off. So, I always wrote songs, lyrics, words, and I wrote my own music because I didn’t know how to play music and so I wasn’t very good at learning songs when I was in a cover band. I tried to learn to play the songs the right way. It was very difficult. It was like, if I write my own songs, nobody can tell me I’m playing it wrong. So, I just kept doing that, and that way no one could bitch.

SFL Music: What would you say is the secret to the success that you’ve had?
Zito: For me it’s hard work. I may not have worked at the brewery, but I watched my dad work and work overtime and just constantly work to take care of the family and I thought, well if I can do something I love, I’m gonna work that hard. When I got clean and sober twenty years ago, I realized man, if you go out and just work twice as hard as everybody else, you could do this. You know, I may not be as talented as the most talented or whatever, but if I put the time and the work in, it would pay off, and it has. It was a twenty-year plan. That’s what Tab Benoit told me, twenty-five years ago (he laughed). That’s what Walter Trout told me. Put in twenty years. Go on the road and put in twenty years. Don’t stop. That’s how you do it, and they were right! I don’t know how that works today for younger people because I think there’s so much success instantly online, but I don’t know that it’s sustainable. The thing I noticed about Tab Benoit twenty years ago was, he showed up somewhere in some town, and they came and bought a ticket for $25.00 and three hundred people showed up. And I thought, nobody can take that away. The club’s not paying him and doing him a favor because they like him. Nobody’s doing him a favor. Those are his fans. They bought tickets. They would go see him wherever he’s playing. So, whatever venues he’s at is lucky to have him because he’s going to bring those people and that is the twenty-year plan. It’s not instant fame and fortune, but I know for the rest of my life, I can drive around this country and show up in places and play. It may not be thousands and thousands, but hundreds of people every night will come out and pay tickets to come see us play. I think that’s been the success.

SFL Music: You added advice that you’d give to up-and-coming musicians it sounds like.
Zito: I don’t know how else to do it. I don’t know how to do any other way. I also enjoy travel and touring and playing and stuff, and I think that has to be in you also, but to me, getting out in front of people, shaking their hand, that’s like the real social media (he laughed). Once you become friends with them, they’re not fans anymore. Your friends will always come support you.

SFL Music: Great advice. What can people look forward to with the live shows? You play at the Funky Biscuit this Friday.
Zito: Oh man. It’s an electric show that is very energetic. It’s a lot of energy coming off the stage with all those musicians. Just the two drum sets alone when they start playing. It’s a big sound. It’s a lot of fun. It’s a lot of blues and blues rock and rock and roll and I mean, I haven’t had that much fun in maybe forever, and I think the audience will feel the same way.

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