Frank Meyer’s name has been synonymous with the LA punk for over two decades. He’s arguably best known as the frontman of the award-winning punk band The Streetwalkin’ Cheetahs. But Meyer is happiest in any sort of creative space which allows him to hone his craft including collaborating with rock legends like Cherie Currie (The Runaways), Wayne Kramer (MC5), Sylvain Sylvain (New York Dolls), and Eddie Spaghetti (Supersuckers).
While his rock story continues to unfold, there is a chapter in his life where he was once part of a Los Angeles-based blues-rock outfit called Highway 61 in the early ‘90s. For a short time Meyer together with Andy Medway, Mike Knutson and Russell Loeffler made a name for themselves on the Southern Californian club circuit before eventually calling it quits in 1993. Interestingly, their flame never fully burnt out, they stayed friends and it took a pandemic, Medway’s near-fatal bout with leukaemia and the death of their mentor Alan Mirkitani a.k.a. BB Chung King to reunite 30 years after the band first broke up. Importantly it was also a chance to finish what they started and release that elusive debut they always wanted to record.
In many ways Highway 61 has come full circle with the release of their 10-song debut album called Driving South. It’s definitely a long-player that deserves a place in any record collection. I’m sure in the coming weeks this straight up blues rocker will go on to receive many more accolades, not least for the kick-ass opener Walk On Water or my favourite album track Supernatural Monkey Child but also the lead single Stranger with its catchy riff and undying blues spirit. With that in mind, I caught up with Meyer to talk about the new record. Here is some of what we talked about.
Frank, can you talk about how Driving South came together and how Highway 61 ended up on Rum Bar Records?
Highway 61 is basically the band I started in high school when I first learned to play guitar and write songs. After a few lineup changes, I met guitarist Andy Medway and bassist Russell Loeffler through an ad in want ads in (LA newspaper) The Recycler and was introduced to drummer Mike Knutson by our mutual friend Josh Freese. We slugged it out in the clubs in the early ‘90s but never got signed and eventually broke up. I went on to form The Streetwalkin’ Cheetahs and play with a lot of other artists, but we always stayed in touch. During the pandemic, Andy was battling Leukemia and was having to sequester himself while he recuperated due to his low immune system and Covid spreading around. So, to cheer himself I up I suggested he grab the ol’ guitar and start writing some songs again. He sent me some ideas, and one was called “Black Magic” and was really amazing. We demo’d it up and I suggested we call the guys to come record it. Once Mike agreed and Russell was buying a plane ticket from Louisiana, we figured we might as well take advantage of the opportunity, so we worked up the best of the old stuff too and cut the whole “Driving South” album in a week or so. It came out so great that I sent it to Rum Bar Records, home of The Streetwalkin’ Cheetahs, and they loved it and agreed to release it.
I understand you went into this new venture with a lot of songs you were playing back in the day. Did you have a certain concept in mind when you were considering them for the new album or did it just evolve naturally?
We just picked the best of the old material plus the one brand new song we had written. We had a ton of old songs from back in the day, and some might go on the next album, but we felt this batch was the strongest and made the most sense for a debut. There’s a cohesiveness to the album that I really dig. It has a vibe, and that’s not always easy to capture.
After some thirty years of making music, it seems like it was a no-brainer to return to something that had fond memories for you. I know you guys as a group kind of burnt out. Is there any advice you would have liked to given your younger self about music back then and now?
I was shocked by how well these songs held up. I assumed I was gonna have to rewrite a bunch of cheesy lyrics, but the songs we chose were all really strong and we didn’t have to rewrite them much at all. We changed a few arrangements around here and there, but nothing dramatic. And we had tons more good ones to choose from, but we wanted to keep it down to 10 songs for our debut. Keep it focused and leave ‘em wanting more. So, I guess my advice to my younger self would be, “Keep writing, kid!”
Is there still the same rapport between you, Andy, Mike and Russell or is it a little different now as your older?
It’s exactly the same, except we’re slightly more mellow. Slightly. We’ve known each other since we were teenagers, so there’s a chemistry and camaraderie that’s always there no matter what. As soon as we started playing together again it was like we had never stopped. Except we’re all much better musicians now.
Frank, the lead single Stranger first caught my obvious attention. Tell me something surprising about it?
We wrote “Stranger” when I was 19 years old, just out of high school, yet it’s a song about growing old and feeling obsolete in your own hometown. I don’t know exactly how we captured that emotion so well at that age, considering we had barely left Los Angeles at that point, but there’s a maturity there. Same thing with “Downtown Girl.” That’s one of the first songs that Andy and I ever wrote together and the version you hear now is no different than the first 4-track demo from 1989 except we play much better, and my voice isn’t high like a chipmunk.
It’s fair to say the guitars on Driving South are just huge. You seem to form an incredible partnership with Andy and Russell. Does it help that you have an intuitive relationship as a band?
Yeah, for sure. We always know what the other is going to do. I can give Russ a glance and he knows what I’m thinking. I can give Mike a nod and he knows exactly what to do. It’s amazing. You don’t always have that with every musician. And for me, Highway 61 is real fun because the material isn’t as fast and furious as my other bands The Streetwalkin’ Cheetahs or Trading Aces, so I can play more lead guitar and sing with more dynamics. It’s nice to actually catch my breath once and awhile.
What stands out most in your mind that makes Driving South such a thrill to listen to?
We got a lot of great guitar sounds on this album, so I am really happy with that. The producer Paul Roessler has a Telfunken U47 microphone, which just sounds incredible, so I am very happy with the vocal sounds we got too. Mike and I have made many albums together and he always plays and sounds great, but he’s so comfortable with this material, I felt like he played his best ever. He’s got a very Stan Lynch (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) vibe, which I love. The singles “Black Magic” and “Stranger” are both great examples of all this stuff coming together so fluidly.
Supernatural Monkey Child is arguably my favourite song on the new album. What’s the story behind it?
That song has kind of a Bob Dylan stream of consciousness lyric approach, that Andy mainly came up with. He’s the big Dylan guy in the band. And when he brought it to me, it had the Steve Miller vibe, but it needed to rock out, so I added the “I’m the one, the seventh son” stuff and the chorus and gave it that Mother Love Bone thing. So, it’s like Bob Dylan meets Steve Miller in a backyard brawl with Mother Love Bone, who we all know became Pearl Jam. Andrew Wood R.I.P.
Some of the songs on the album and the ones that jumped out at me the most are Breath Away and Midnight Train. I especially like the bass in Midnight Train. Where do these two performances stand in your evaluation of them?
I’m really happy with all the performances on the album. The band is live in a room on every track, and we nailed ‘em all in 1 to 3 takes each, so there’s a freshness and energy there that really comes out of the speakers. “Midnight Train” is a perfect example of that energy. It’s got funk to it, got some Aerosmithy groove, some heaviness, and yet a bluesy vibe. Much of that is just finding the exact right tempo and have a drummer as solid as Mike Knutson. We are lucky to have him. “Breath Away” is always a fun one. I think we did that on the first take too. The solo on there is Alan Mirikitani — a.k.a. B.B. Chung King — of the Buddaheads. He passed away a few years back, but he was a mentor to us in ‘90s when we did the club circuit together, and he played on some of our early demos. We pulled a few of his leads off the master reel-to-reels and flew them into these new records. So “Breath Away” and “Walk on Water” both feature shredding solos from Alan, and we even got his daughter Alana to sing backing vocals.
Finally, before I let you go, will you be playing festivals or headlining shows this summer? I feel like these songs will definitely kick ass. Do you have a favourite you’re looking forward to giving a blast and why?
We just finished a Southern California tour with Adam Bomb and are planning an East Coast trek in the late Summer or early Fall. In between, I am doing a tour with my punk band The Streetwalkin’ Cheetahs this month, and then head to Spain for 2 weeks of touring with my European-based sleaze-metal band Trading Aces. Really looking to get back to Europe and tour. The Cheetahs did it a bunch and I have done it as a sideman with guys like Cheetah Chrome of the Dead Boys, but it’s been a while. Hopefully laying the groundwork to get Highway 61 out to Europe as well!
I’m a Deezer listener, I hope I can catch this anyway. Great to see that Wayne Kramer and Sylvain Sylvain are still on the edge.
“Driving South” is such a fun album to listen to, and Highway 61 not only have a cool name but are a great band with a great story. I’m glad you “found” them as well!
Based on Frank’s comments, it sounds like Highway 61 may be touring the East Coast later this year. Hopefully, this will include New Jersey or New York. I would seriously consider seeing them!
Definitely a great album. I very much enjoy the heavy guitar riffs throughout. Their story is indeed inspirational.