Taken from Creative Loafing (Aug 12, 2009)
Michael Franti & Spearhead
by Leilani Polk
Michael Franti believes music is the world's greatest unifier. The 15-year frontman of Spearhead is so dedicated to it and so unwilling to disappoint his fans that he'll continue to perform even if he's experiencing debilitating pain.
But you can only play through the pain for so long - especially when said pain turns out to be a burst appendix.
The singer/guitarist faced this reality a dozen shows into his band's co-tour with Counting Crows. Following one misdiagnosis after another, steadily increasing abdomen pain finally landed him in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center following the band's July 22 gig in Temecula, Calif. By the time doctors discovered the untreated problem and performed an emergency appendectomy, an abscess had formed and infection was running rampant, the toxins working their way into his blood. The surgeon described it as one of the worst cases the hospital had ever seen.
"I went through a pretty close call and I'm just happy to be alive," Franti tells me by phone less than two weeks later, still recovering from the ordeal. "I have a big four-inch incision inside of my body that needs to close itself up before I can really do anything."
Franti kept fans up to date on his condition via a series of videos uploaded to his ongoing FrantiV tour diary. The videos are funny, heartwarming, and in one case, uncomfortably graphic (a clip showing his wound being cleaned by a nurse; check it out after the jump).
"I was just so tired in the hospital," he explains. "It was just easier talking into the camera for a couple of minutes than it was sitting down in front of the computer and trying to write something."
Franti and Spearhead were set to rejoin Counting Crows and Augustana August 11 in Nashville. When the co-tour was first announced, message boards buzzed with bafflement about the seemingly odd pairing. Spearhead and the Crows are both led by passionate, dreadlocked, fuzzy-faced singers, but they have very different styles of rocking out - the Crows sensitive and melodic, Spearhead political and beat-tastic.
Surprisingly, it was Crows frontman Adam Duritz who came up with the idea to collaborate. Franti and Duritz knew each other from back in the early '90s when they were both living in Berkeley, Calif. "We met on a basketball court where we used to play pickup games," Franti tells me. Duritz came to see Franti's industrial punk rock outfit, The Beatnigs, and Crows guitarist David Bryson engineered The Beatnigs' first and only album.
In 1994, the Crows took off, Franti formed Spearhead, and Duritz and Franti lost touch. They re-connected when Duritz approached Franti about the collaboration.
The three bands spent a week practicing material and ironing out the logistics. Franti says working with 15 different personalities has been an adventure. "Some part is navigating the music and some is just getting to know each other as friends." Basketball and soccer games between rehearsals "ended up helping to gel the whole thing even more than us playing music - just hanging out together and shooting baskets, we learned more about each other."
The three bands share a backline of instruments. "We kinda each do our own set, but there's no real breaks and between each of our sets there are a lot of collaborative lineups."
Franti and Spearhead (pictured at left, photo by Andrew Fornasier) will play select tracks from a six-album catalog packed with thought-provoking lyrics like 2003's post-9/11 anthem "Bomb The World" with its oft-repeated protest sign-ready line, "You can bomb the world to pieces, but you can't bomb it into peace," and meditations on the human cost of war, like the songs on 2006's Yell Fire!, which was inspired by Franti's experiences visiting the wartorn Middle East.
Amidst the outrage, Franti offers words of encouragement about not losing sight of community. He keeps his politics from getting too heavy by infusing the band's hip-hoppin', fist-pumpin' rock with elements of dub, roots and dancehall reggae.
Spearhead's most successful attempt at upbeat activism so far is their sixth and latest album, 2008's All Rebel Rockers. Largely recorded and produced in Jamaica with reggae/funk giants Sly & Robbie (No Doubt, Peter Tosh), All Rebel Rockers preserves Franti's sense of social justice, but with the easygoing essence of the islands.
"I really wanted to make this record be an inspiring record, because I was writing it during the lead-up to the last election and so I was trying to address some of the things that were taking place," Franti says. "But I also wanted to leave people with a sense of optimism and hopefulness for the future."
All Rebel Rockers even has an honest-to-goodness love song. "I said to myself, I'm writing all these intense political songs, I just want one song that's happy. You can listen to it at a barbecue, you can dance and it makes you feel good."
That song, "Say Hey (I Love You)," is the band's most popular to date with 125,000 in digital sales - a career high - and a Top 40 position on the pop charts.
"Say Hey" came about while he was living at Woody Harrelson's house in LA. "When we were first writing the record, we were doing some recording sessions down there," Franti tells me. "I'd play some chords on my guitar and record them, and put them on in the shower, and sing in the shower, write the words on the window in the steam, and then I would come out and take a picture of it before it evaporated ... Woody called me right after I finished writing it, and I was actually sitting on the toilet in his bathroom and I go 'Woody, I think I wrote this really amazing hit song.' And he goes, 'Is it a number 1 or a number 2?'"
Franti says the song's sentiment - "I don't want to write a love song for the world, I just want to write a song about a boy and a girl" - sums up everything he was feeling at the time. Franti is aware of the risk of getting sidetracked by mainstream media's latest political firestorms. "Those things don't mean anything when compared to just how important our relationships are to our family, our lovers, our kids, our friends ... Really that's what it's all about, and that's where that song came from."
Franti says although he's as frustrated as anybody about what's happened over the past few years, "I'm just reminded that when times are tough, those are the times when we need to grab onto each other." He elaborates with a metaphor: "Redwood trees are the tallest trees in North America, but they have really shallow roots. But the reason they are able to stand so strong is that they all hold onto each other. I guess that's my message for today - find out where each of us can help, and then go do it. We need it now more than ever."