Michael Trotter Jr. has no reservations when it comes to talking about playing Saddam Hussein's piano in the basement of the dictator's private palace. Nor is he shy about discussing the perils of his tour of duty in Iraq in 2004 and his struggle with managing his post-traumatic stress disorder during the years that followed. But when it comes to the topic of love, well, the floodgates open and show no signs of closing.
Trotter and Tanya Blount-Trotter are the War and Treaty, and they are so incredibly in love that one might assume they have known each other over the course of several lives — and in many ways they have. Their charged, foot-stomping, gospel-infused Americana acts as the perfect backdrop to their powerful storytelling and chilling, blow-the-roof-off-of-any-damn-place vocal harmonizing. As it turns out, there is no turning them off. Their bond is as integral to their sound as instruments, lyrics, and melody.
As the duo gears up for the release of its follow-up to 2017's Down to the River EP, Trotter is eager to explain why they've chosen to record their first live record at Otus Supply in Ferndale — and why human beings are vessels of light.
Metro Times: The War and Treaty is based in Nashville, but you have Michigan ties, correct?
Michael Trotter Jr.: Well, our address is in Albion. We came to work on our album out here with no one but each other. That's what's going to come out on Aug. 10. Predominantly, we're touring right now. I think we spend six months in Nashville, six months in Michigan.
MT: Do you and Tanya have similar musical interests and backgrounds, or was there a show-and-tell period when it came to discovering the War and Treaty sound?
Trotter: Well, Tanya's musical tastes are very broad, and so are mine. You know, when you have one of those moments when you just sit down and just listen to music and are just jamming. I didn't realize how similar our tastes were, but Tanya introduced me to a whole other side of music.
MT: You're very much an openly married band. Was there ever a point where you considered keeping parts of your relationship off of the stage?
Trotter: We couldn't contain it even if we wanted to. Once you try and contain it, you start to try to hold the reigns. That's frustrating to a free spirit. We feel that type of freedom heals the world and gives people hope. It gives people dreams and wishful thinking again. Realizing it's there. It's in all of us. Because we're all human beings. That's the wonderful part about being a human being is that you can feel without boundaries.
MT: It's been a cynical couple of years here as far as the political and social climate is concerned. It's important to be able to go to watch people perform and feel that energy from two people. Is that energy purely performative or does it work its way into your lyrical content?
Trotter: It's all one energy in my opinion. The fact that you can put your thumb on the pain and the hurting pulse of our nation, and that kind of rift that's happening racially. When you come to see the War and Treaty, as a fan you see many different kinds of faces up there. This black couple, surrounded by an all white band. I think it represents not just what makes America great, it's what makes the human race great. No matter what our preferences are, we have all decided to make one decision and that is to make great music.
MT: Music is a universal language in that way.
Trotter: So is love. Music is really the soundtrack to the most powerful language on Earth, that's love. What we do is, we try to remind people not of the pain, the murders and the killing, and the police brutality. We try to remind them that we have a responsibility in this to rise above the fray and the pain to unite as one and say enough is enough. We can't continue to think our world will survive this way — or our race, the human race will survive this way. There is no difference. Skin is skin.
MT: Collectively we forget to take pause and sort of reflect, and I think music is a great way to be able to do that. Especially when musicians like yourself are conduits for that message. Did music serve as an escape for you while you served in Iraq?
Trotter: Music is a very great shelter, especially in a moment of war. I see a lot of folk songs come out of war. It's a vehicle, a safe haven, and when I was over there in Iraq, I learned how to use that safe haven to heal and to raise the morale of troops. That's what I did. I wrote subconsciously how I felt and it was good enough and healing enough for my commanders to say spread this cheer. And in hindsight, I don't know how you can get cheer out of a funeral except knowing that your brother laid down his life in sacrifice and ultimately caring for a soldier, or a sailor, or any serviceman who's served in the United States Armed Forces. Well, if I perish, it's so I know that Jerilyn can write in peace. If I perish, it's so that our children can sleep safely. And if I hear Michael's song, I can feel good about the fact I've served. That's what I felt. I felt, "Wow, it's amazing they're taking to it, and I am writing songs about them." And now that I'm out of the military, my songs are about life.
MT: Emotional environment becomes such a huge factor in what your output becomes.
Trotter: Yes it is. When you write in your environment, and you can be in any kind of situation, like for me, there were some days where I would just sit down and write in Iraq, and it'd be chaotic. I'm writing about being in a beach in Hawaii. My mind is always in there, whisked away to that zone and that moment.
MT: Did you and Tanya meet after your service?
Trotter: Yes, we actually met in 2010.
MT: How did you meet?
Trotter: We were both at this festival in Laurel, Maryland. She saw me singing up on the stage, and she wanted to know afterward if I wrote those songs. She invited me to a writing session. The rest was off to the races from there.
MT: Your trauma is a very intriguing part of your musical journey. Was she understanding of what you had gone through was going to play into your music as a duo?
Trotter: Tanya didn't know my journey — and my journey wasn't always one I was proud of. There's a lot of moral guilt from war, when you come home. And I served under the Bush regime. There are a lot of mixed emotions and feelings about that whole era. And there's a lot of shame when I got home. So, I didn't share my story until maybe three years into our marriage.
MT: Was she shocked?
Trotter: Extremely shocked. She didn't understand what was going on. There was one Fourth of July where we spent together. The very first one. We were actually in Detroit believe it or not. There were a bunch of fireworks but it sounded like gunfire. I started freaking out and screaming and crawled under the bed and had a huge PTSD attack. I had to face it and really get some help, and she guided on that ship. I went to therapy and all that but the biggest therapy for me was the fact that I went through Tanya's love. She showered me with love. Not an inch of judgment, not an ounce in her body. In this particular case, her level of compassion and understanding is what really got me to a point to figure out myself.
MT: Who is the War and Treaty audience?
Trotter: We're still trying to figure out. The demographic has ranged from a little child to a senior citizen and everything in between. So many times we look at pieces of history, like James Brown at the Apollo where he recorded that live album. And you think, man I wish I was in the building, and what that felt like. We hope to capture some lightning in a bottle at Otus Supply. You'll feel charged and ready. The show is for you. What you see is what you get. It's who we are. We're amped up. We're charged up, and there's something about the city of Detroit that does that for us. There's something about Michigan, period. That fighting, rising spirit, and the will to overcome any kind of adversity. Michigan is the heartbeat of that underdog spirit.
The War and the Treaty will perform and will record live at Otus Supply on Saturday, June 2 and Sunday, June 3; Doors open at 8 p.m.; 248-291-6160; otussupply.com; Tickets are $25-$30.
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