Courtesy of Mike Tramp

Mike Tramp Talks the Pillars of White Lion & ‘Embracing the Bear’

Some eighties rockers wish they could teleport some 40 years back in time. Mike Tramp isn’t one of them. The former White Lion singer has no desire to sound, act, or look like he did once upon a time. He’s content with his station in life in 2023: short mane, wise maturity, and a voice that has aged tremendously. 

Following a long and fruitful career post-White Lion (as the vocalist of several bands and a solo artist), Mike Tramp has embarked on a “Songs of White Lion” tour. He and his backing band are delivering full-on versions of the band’s indelible songs such as “Wait,” “Tell Me,” “When the Children Cry,” “Lady of the Valley,” “Broken Heart,” and “Little Fighter” – to name just a few. 

These tracks also appear on the Songs of White Lion record released earlier this year. It includes re-worked versions of White Lion classics and they are a must hear, especially live as Tramp performs October 12 at bergenPAC in Englewood, New Jersey.

White Lion’s debut album, Fight to Survive, was followed by Pride, their breakout record in 1987. Buoyed by a triumvirate of songs, solid radio airplay, and a ubiquitous presence on MTV, the album hit No. 11 on the Billboard charts. In addition, “When the Children Cry” reached No. 3 on the Singles charts. These songs the band released back then and are being revitalized now are enduring for a reason. Many of the socially conscious lyrics written several decades ago still resonate strongly. 

We recently had the pleasure of speaking with Mike Tramp. The thoughtful, genuine singer gave an all-inclusive history lesson from his early days arriving in New York City from Denmark to the Songs of White Lion.

You’ve released a number of albums in the past featuring yourself as part of a band, as well as solo albums. Why now for a return to a White Lion-based tour?

It’s one of those things… if you go back to ’95 after I’d been part of three bands, I’m suddenly finding myself at the crossroads. “Am I going toward another band or am I going to go my own merry way?”  I made the decision that there’s nothing left to me to give to a band. You, in many ways, are both heartbroken and a little unfinished, so I started my solo career there. Instantly the songs tell me who I am and who I am when I am by myself. It’s the true DNA – all what it is and where I came from. Of course, in the big White Lion career and what was to follow you hop on that bullet train and go with it. When I stand and look in the mirror, I just want to be me and [have] my music to represent me. This is the storytelling of the rest of my life about my daily life – where I’ve been, where I’m going, what I’ve seen, what I regret, what I enjoy.

With each solo album, as I toured around the world from one café to one dark little club, the voice of White Lion was something that got added to each concert poster. For every album and every tour that I did it would overtake the show. It was misleading to what is really performed that night. This is a storyteller; this is a man with an acoustic guitar. He might play some White Lion songs, but it’s being sold as a Mike Tramp / White Lion show. Then people see the poster and say, ‘”Oh, we remember him! Let’s see what that is tonight.”’ It’s been almost 20 years and this bear keeps chasing me in my dreams. I had to find a way of stopping this bear chasing me. Finally, I turned around and embraced the bear and said, “Well, I did write these songs,” but today I’m 62 years old. This is a man who might have done this years ago and now here he is rerecording the songs with all his heart and soul from what’s he’s experienced in the 40 years since these songs were written. The sound does change. The whole package has to fit together. I do not sound like I did when I was 24. I don’t want to act like I’m 24. I don’t want to look like I’m 24. At least for my sake, I don’t want to go out… I’m the world’s biggest Elvis fan, but I don’t want to go out and be fat Elvis. I don’t want to go and give a bad representation of the MTV Mike Tramp. I want to go out there and be confident. 

How did you choose which songs to include on Songs of White Lion

It was, “Let’s start with the greatest hits.” In reality, because I’ve done a lot of these songs acoustic, I sort of knew what to do – where do you expand, but at the same time staying note for note truthfully to the Vito Bratta guitar parts and solos, because they’re as important to the White Lion sound as my vocal.

Tell us about your backing band.

We’re just four guys going out in an SUV and playing clubs. I’m out there playing with three of my friends who have been selected for this tour of duty. That’s also a part of the whole thing: the personal enjoyment, the interaction between musicians, and the enjoyment of doing this journey with your friends.  

What was your musical experience growing up in Denmark? Who were the American musicians that you worshipped that made you want to come to the U.S.?

I didn’t grow up in a musical home – I grew up in a home of music. There was always music playing. My mom used to wake us up for school either playing Elvis or Roy Orbison or Johnny Cash. That is what I grew up with and that is my true DNA. I am a folk artist before anything else. Let’s say 50% of the White Lion songs originated out of a man sitting on a couch with an acoustic guitar thinking he was Dylan., then, when Vito and I would start working on the songs, we would start adding these big guitars. It eventually ended up being the sound of a hard rock band, but once you strip it away, you see the purity of the song. These songs could easily have been played without any of these additions, from drums to bass to reverb to harmony to anything. 

You came to New York City in 1982. What inspired you to make the move from Denmark?

I was 21 when I came to New York in ’82. Years before that, growing up, even though the artists that I mentioned before are American, the hard rock world that came into my life came from England – Queen, Bad Company, Rainbow, Deep Purple. Then, suddenly and out of the blue, I started discovering at a local record store the sound of American rock – anything from Kansas to Eddie Money to Cheap Trick to Journey. There is where I discovered that the melody and the vocalists in America had a different approach to it. There was less screaming. There was so much melody in it and it totally attracted me. From that… I would say I was sold. I knew the trip from Copenhagen wasn’t going to be to London. I’d already been to London many times. It was going to be across the ocean to the big place. 

How long after you arrived did White Lion start taking shape?

I met Vito in early ’83 and we started White Lion and recorded the first record, “Fight to Survive,” in early January ’84. We get signed to a massive record deal in March of ’84 with Elektra Records and the album is scheduled to come out on this big label. Two months later, as we shot the album cover and start preparing the factory to print this album, out of the blue the label drops us. Basically ,“Fight to Survive” starts then. I was talking to my old manager the other day and he says, “We had three years taken away from us.” It came out in Europe, and it came into America in local record stores as an import. If it came out worldwide in ’84, I think that by the time we came to ’87 we would have been in a different stage. It’s very strange to look back at how destiny changes when you make a right turn instead of a left. 

Were you surprised at the breakout success of the Pride album?

I wasn’t, because if you really go back, it almost takes half a year for the Pride album to make any noise. Our rise was slow. Vito and I, as the songwriters, knew we had the songs, so if the record company did their job to get the record into the stores and pushed to get it to the radio stations so that the fans can hear it, then the fans will do the rest. And they did.

What makes White Lion songs timeless, that in 2023 people still clamor to see you?

White Lion is very unique in its own way. I talk about this every night. It wasn’t necessarily the plan, and it wasn’t on purpose. I was born and raised in a country of four or five million people. I’m very socially conscious. I couldn’t get myself to sing about girls and beer. Yes, there are a couple of cliché songs in the White Lion catalog, but the core of it all is the depth of it, that I wrote “Little Fighter” about the Rainbow Warrior. “When the Children Cry” was written in ’85 and could be the battle hymn for Ukraine. “Lady of the Valley,” “All the Fallen Men” – my first encounter with how little returning soldiers were taken care of, with me coming from a country that had never been to war. I feel that the pillars will stand the test of time.