Years ago, when terrestrial radio still ruled our listening lives, a gruff voice would hit the airwaves of KTYD every night from 7 p.m. until midnight, introducing rounds of rock ’n’ roll as Santa Barbarans rolled the streets or sucked down beers on porches. That was the hauntingly distinctive voice of Mike Dawson, who left our city 15 years ago to work as a technical producer — later adding engineer and announcer to his title — for Adam Carolla’s syndicated morning show, where he’s been ever since.
Dawson never stopped playing music himself, and he just released The Last Honky Tonk Hero, a raucous and raw — though slickly produced — album with his band The Smokin Kills. Dawson’s voice pairs to the gritty rock music like rolled cigarettes with lukewarm bottles of Coors Banquet, and they’re sure to put on a wild show at SOhO on September 16.
Dawson fills us in about his life and music below.
When did you start playing music? I was gifted my grandfather’s guitar when I was 15 years old. I still have it and play it often. I took three lessons in the Bay Area where I grew up, learned five chords, and started writing and performing songs. I think I had a pretty good grasp on music lyrically, and I figured if Tom Petty could make a living on five chords, why couldn’t I?
My grandfather “Papa” loved Waylon Jennings. I’d listen to him play and always wanted to be like him. He died when I was in 3rd grade, so learning to play on his guitar was the closest I was able to get to him.
Remind us of your legendary Santa Barbara history. I graduated from UCSB in 1997 with the dream of becoming a radio jock. So I kept my job as manager at Italia Pizzeria in Goleta and, every Monday morning, I knocked on the door of all the radio stations in town with my résumé in hand. Eventually I met Peter Bie, who was the program director for 101.7 K-Lite. He hired me on the spot as the board operator for Casey Kasem’s Top 40 Countdown and Jim Brickman’s Weekend Morning. Those gigs started at 4 and 5 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday, so my weekends were shot, but I didn’t care. I had my foot in the door and my first job in radio.
From there, I learned everything I could about radio, production, and promotional events. Thanks to folks like Rick Barker, Dayna Birkley, Keith Royer, and David Perry, I acquired my own air shift from 7 p.m. to midnight on 99.9 KTYD. I also became music director/assistant program director and was responsible for adding a lot of the music you still hear there today.
What do you miss most about KTYD days? The live shows at SOhO. I produced their radio ads, and they gave me a bar tab and a ticket to every show they put on. I met some of the best people in the world there, from musicians to bartenders to bussers and waitstaff. I spent five or six nights a week at SOhO and even had a recording system installed so I could record live shows there. I’ve got about seven bootlegged Glen Phillips shows in my archive.
You might also recognize my voice on the commercials for the Sings Like Hell Concert Series. That said, the thing Santa Barbarans will probably remember about me is those Spearmint Rhino commercials I voiced. That, and I partied a lot.
Why’d you move to L.A.? I always wanted to work in Los Angeles. One morning I saw a posting from The Adam Carolla Show. They were looking for a technical producer for the syndicated morning show and said to send your résumé and latest “timely radio bit.”
I had no idea what a technical producer did, so I faked it. I downloaded some audio editing software, got a crappy microphone, and produced my very first “timely radio bit”: I took comedic jabs at the Winter Olympics in Italy. Remember when Bode Miller performed underwhelmingly on the slopes but came through like a champion on the party scene? Well, I had some line in there about how he owed my cousin Lorenzo 50 million lira for some Lebanese Blonde Hash.
I guess they liked it because they had me come down to L.A. to audition for the job. I was offered the job, and I moved to Los Angeles and never looked back. That was just over 15 years ago.
Today, I still work with Adam Carolla as technical producer/engineer/announcer. Over the last 15 years, I have said the name Adam Carolla more times than his entire family has during his whole life. That’s what I’m known for these days: “And now … Adam Carolla!”
How did The Smokin Kills begin? About five years ago, I had two tickets to see Shooter Jennings at The Troubadour. The band was celebrating the 10-year anniversary of Black Ribbons, a record I really think you should listen to, like, right now. Put this down and go play that record. We’ll still be here. Okay, it’s brilliant, right?
Anyway, I had two tickets and my friend bailed on me. So I put out on Twitter that if anyone wants to go to the show, just buy me a beer. I said, “I’ll be the guy outside who looks like me.”
Drummer Tyler Kershaw answered. As we were chatting over a pre-show beer (that Tyler paid for), I saw Ted Russell Kamp walking around the floor. I waved him over to join us and introduced him to Tyler. After some small talk, Ted asks both of us, “So, are you two in a band?”
There are times in your life where it can feel like the entire universe is trying to point you in a certain direction. When you feel those moments happening, roll with it.
I looked at Tyler and said, “Well, are we?” That was the night the band started. Tyler grabbed some good friends to join us on bass and guitar, Tim Hutton and Kevin Fosmark.
The funny thing about trying to put a band together in Los Angeles is you quickly learn that there are two types of musicians here: Those that are available and not very good, and those who are good and not very available. With this band, I lucked out.
Tim was playing bass with Sugar Ray at the time, so he wasn’t always available, but when he got pulled up to play with his dad in Three Dog Night, he politely quit the band. We already had some tracks down for the next record but didn’t have a producer. I called up Ted and asked him if he’d be willing to produce and play bass on the record, so one night we met at my studio and played through the songs that would become The Last Honky Tonk Hero.
When we finished running through the songs, Ted said, “Yeah, I’ll produce your record. I’d also like to join your band.” As I said, when the universe is pointing you in a direction, go that way.
What can listeners expect from the album? Side one is destruction. Side two is redemption. It’s like Merle Haggard joined The Black Crowes. The theme throughout is “California cowboy-troubadour Buck Owens in a black T-shirt in post-millennial Los Angeles.” There are themes of being a Northern California kid in a Southern California world all over the place and, of course, there are a lot of references to drugs and alcohol. No surprise there. I like songs of “substance.”
How’d COVID affect the recording? We were able to track the foundation of the record pre-COVID, thankfully, so we were able to be in the same room to lay down the roots. When COVID hit, we had to get creative. Thankfully, both Ted and I have our own studios and were able to jump on a Zoom call for recording sessions. I would re-sing a song’s vocals while Ted would monitor my singing on Zoom. To his credit, Ted Russell Kamp produced the hell out of this record, COVID considered. COVID mainly affected the release of this record. It’s been done since March, but I’m not releasing a record without touring on it, so we pushed the date forward to August.
Where else are you playing in addition to SOhO? Our album release party is at The Mint in Los Angeles on September 8. We’re going to play The Last Honky Tonk Hero in order, all the way through. I love The Mint. I’ve seen hundreds of shows there and played three myself, so it’ll be great to play for a home crowd in a legendary club.
Since Ted is still playing with Shooter Jennings, I try to piggyback some Shooter shows. Like, when Shooter’s band is in Texas, you might find my band at a smaller venue up the road the night before. It’s a lot of fun and saves me the cost of one plane ticket.
Are you working on another album? There will be another record. We are folding new stuff into our live set and working songs out in real time. We’re going back in the studio to start another record in the spring, unless we get lucky and book a tour. We’re all keeping our fingers crossed that venues don’t get shut down again.