You may not know M. Rivers by name, but there’s a good chance you’ve heard his voice before on one of his previous projects. Back in 2003, the artist — then known as Kazzer — had a track featured in The Italian Job. Nearly a decade later, he was the singer of Redlight King you probably heard on the radio with tunes like “Bullet in My Hand” and a timeless twist on Neil Young’s “Old Man” back in 2011. After learning from the numerous ups and downs that only come with years of experience, the soulful songwriter Mark Kasprzyk is now back under an updated moniker with a new sound and vibe on his latest record, last year’s Champion.
“The first song I wrote for the album was ‘Something to Die For,’ and it’s about my dad passing away — so it started on a very emotional path,” Rivers says. “I ended up recording that song four different times because I wasn’t sure of the direction, but we ended up going with a slamming ‘60s and ‘70s rock vibe, and it was a great experience. Because it was an independent album, no one was over our shoulder and there were no deadlines. When it was done, it was done — although it still had to be torn out of my hands a little bit, which is a usual thing.”
But even with a new record, plenty of things still remain the same for Rivers. While his latest work may be more of a solo project than some of his previous band-based records, the change in who’s standing on the stage with him is a pretty minor shift for the veteran vocalist — after all, he’s pretty much always been the driving force behind the music, no matter which name was going on the front of the record.
“I always took on a leadership role, and I wrote most of the songs when I was in the band, so this isn’t that different,” Rivers says. “In a lot of ways, it becomes easier because I can just focus on the way I’m feeling and the way I’m coming in rather than having to think about my fellow bandmates and how they’re perceiving everything — especially on the road. Of course I miss the camaraderie of the band and the family, but at the same time I have a new family with an eight-piece band, and I’m having a great time.”
As a part of that new family, Rivers called in the assistance of musical Swiss army knife Jimmy Messer to not only produce the record but also help put together a new label, Parts + Labor Records. Although usually hesitant to hand over the reigns when it comes to his own work, the singer was glad to have someone he could trust to help him out with his latest venture — even if Messer was also figuring things out a little bit as they went along.
“I think it’s essential to surround yourself with good people who really believe in you and your art,” Rivers says. “You need people who can give you creative freedom but also aren’t afraid to tell you when your idea is maybe not the best one in the room. When I’ve had success in the past, I tend to put on the blinders a little bit and just take control, but for this album it was more about servicing each song independently and really concentrating on my singing.”
For those who see Rivers before they hear him, the somewhat vintage and dancing tones of his music may come as a bit of a surprise. Covered in tattoos, generally found near a motorcycle, and often sporting a shaved head and beard stubble, Rivers would look more appropriate at most punk rock or metal shows than the soulful vibes that have earned him a slot opening for RZA and Pussy Riot at South by Southwest. Of course, you should never judge a book by its cover, and many of the artist’s tattoos mean just as much to him as the tunes he’s penned over the years.
“Part of the visual presentation is just showing people who I really am,” Rivers says. “I’ve always been fond of tattoos and a major fan of the culture. I’m not going to put tattoo art on the cover or become a whole tattoo/punk rock kind of vibe. My music and the way I look sometimes is a bit of a juxtaposition, because people tend to think I’m a tough guy with the tattoos — and I was a fighter for 20 years as well before my music career took off. For me, I look at them as art and a different part of my personal expression.”
M. Rivers will be at the Satellite in Los Angeles on March 23 at 9:00 p.m. Tickets are available through the venue’s website.