Continuing Detroit’s rich musical heritage: An interview with Mark Kassa

An interview with Mark Kassa from Detroit rockers’ Slight Return

Few cities in the world can match the musical heritage of Detroit. The Michigan city gave birth to Motown; helped launch the career of jazz icons such as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie; and is also home to multiple rock n roll legends like Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop and Bob Seger. Continuing the city’s rich legacy is Slight Return.

Since forming in 1996, the band has released 12 albums, had more than a dozen songs picked for consideration in the Grammy Awards ballot, and has even attracted recognition from the Latin Grammy Awards with two tracks selected for their ballot. Their reputation precedes them, and they have worked with a who’s who of the music industry with collaborations ranging from funk legend George Clinton to vocalist Andy Vargas from Santana’s band.

With a 13th studio album slated for later this year and plenty of live shows coming up across USA and Canada, we spoke with the band’s vocalist, guitarist, producer and writer Mark Kassa to find out more.

When did you start playing guitar and who inspired you to start?

I started playing guitar at age 17 (very late for most musicians). In the summer of 1985, I saw Stevie Ray Vaughan in concert and it was incredible. He absolutely blew me away with the passion in his guitar playing and it inspired me to become a professional guitarist. Stevie was soft spoken, humble and let his music do the talking. He is a legend.

What inspired me further in my career was attending the Guitar Institute of Technology (GIT) at Musicians Institute in Hollywood, California. The school was founded by Howard Roberts, guitarist from one of the greatest groups of studio musicians in history, The Wrecking Crew. It was internationally recognised and drew 50% of its students from outside the United States. GIT was a one year vocational (four years of music education in 12 months) curriculum to develop you into a professional musician. The classes were essential to becoming a player that could read, write, produce and perform music at a top level.

What also fuels me is the privilege of writing, recording, and producing over a dozen albums with incredible guests and international artists including funk icon and hall of famer George Clinton from Parliament/Funkadelic, Billy Cox from Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys, legendary drummer Dennis Chambers, producer Rich Mansor (Welcome to the D® album), Jack Endino, Steve Capp, and my great bandmates – Ronnie Karmo, Tony Mitchell, William Pope and Christian Vegh. I’m grateful to have had Slight Return®’s music on the first round Grammy Awards ballot multiple times, and played shows with many national acts.

My love for guitar playing has motivated me to write a book called Music Meat – a guitar instructional book which will be out by the end of the year. I have been working on new endeavours with Folktellers Studios on the Hero’s Journey series and another album release. All these fun things keep me busy and creative in the music industry and feed my passion for music.

How would you describe Slight Return’s sound?

Slight Return® is an original, funky, groove orientated, hard driving, no nonsense, rock band. We took influence from the greats and melded them with our own distinct sound and personality.

One publication best described us as “One of the funkiest bands on the Detroit scene yet! The band mixes it up with original music that seems to blend the past with the present and the future. Think Rage Against the Machine and Red Hot Chili Peppers meet Jimi Hendrix, Robin Trower, and Santana at a jam session and then go out for some barbecue afterwards!” I think that says it best!

Who have been some of your biggest influences?

Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, Santana and Robin Trower are my biggest influences. Stevie’s Couldn’t Stand the Weather, Jimi’s Band of Gypsys, Santana’s Lotus, and Robin’s 1975 Live albums are iconic. Vaughan’s live performance from the El Mocambo was stellar. All four of them had a common thread; their ability to improvise in concert. It was the way music was meant to be played – organic, creative and impulsive, all based on the emotion running through the artist at that moment.

My other influences include Les Claypool, Scott Henderson, Steve Vai, Tom Morello, Allan Holdsworth, Eddie Van Halen, Nile Rogers, Andy Summers, Al McKay, John Lee Hooker, Joe Satriani, Eric Johnson, and many of the old funk and disco guitar players.

Over the years you’ve collaborated with some serious legends in the music world. If you could collaborate with anyone in the world right now, who would it be and why?

There are two guitar players I’ve been a fan of for decades that I would love to collaborate with – Carlos Santana and Robin Trower.

Carlos has an instantly recognisable guitar tone and distinctive and melodic style. He has a vocal-like lead guitar approach. Santana went through many changes as a player – from the early days with long guitar jams on live albums, to conceptual/experimental albums, to collaborations, and a pop chart resurgence with Supernatural. He is one of the few that has been able to pivot in different decades and freshen up his sound and musical approach.

Robin Trower has a distinctive psychedelic guitar tone shaped with the sounds of the univibe, wah and other Hendrix influenced effects. In my humble opinion, his 1975 Live album from Sweden with Jimmy Dewar is one of the greatest live albums of all time, second only to Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys. The RT@RO.08 (Robin Trower at Royal Oak) live album has personal importance because we opened for him that night. It was great to share the stage with one of the guitar players that inspired me and at the same venue that I had seen Stevie Ray Vaughan. I took photos of the marquee (which includes our name) and the stage, both of which are on the two cd’s and back cover of the release.

If you guys want to call Carlos Santana and Robin on my behalf, I’m ready to record with both! If Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Miles were still around I would find a way to record and jam with them!

Earlier this year you released a song called Them Changes. What can you tell us about this single?

Them Changes is our tribute to Buddy Miles, one of the greatest, yet least recognised musicians in history. He was a triple threat as an incredible drummer, vocalist and guitarist. He played and sang on Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys live from the Fillmore in New York on New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day 1969/1970. You could always tell a Buddy Miles drum groove because it had such an incredible settled in feel. Buddy released over a dozen albums, jammed with many famous artists and accomplished so much. Santana released a live album featuring Buddy on drums and vocals in 1972. Ironically, it was also recorded on New Year’s Eve. He toured with Santana in the 80’s as the vocalist and second guitarist. Unknown to most, Buddy was a great guitar player. Check out the video of him jamming the song Texas with Santana in Berlin in 1986 and you will be in for a pleasant surprise. He had also played drums live with Stevie Ray Vaughan, Buddy Guy, Steve Vai, Mike Bloomfield, etc., and was the voice behind the famed California Raisins. I think he had played with more iconic guitarists than anyone in history.

Them Changes was Buddy’s signature album and song. We wanted to pay tribute to him with our version. Our goal was to retain the integrity of the original and the vibe of the live versions that Buddy always turned into extended improvisational jams. Covering the song was our way of recognising him for his individual greatness and not just as a sideman for Jimi Hendrix.

Slight Return also had first round ballot entries in multiple categories for 2023’s Grammy Awards, how motivating is that type of recognition?

It’s definitely a bonus. We’re grateful and appreciative when people enjoy our music and we get recognition for it. We love writing, producing and performing music and would do it with or without accolades, but it’s great to be acknowledged.

In 2022 you released your 12th album, Turn the Page, are there already plans in motion for your 13th album?

Yes, album #13 will be out in the third or fourth quarter this year (no name has been chosen for the album yet). We have released a couple of singles from it already, including Shake, Move, Groove which features the singing debut of our world class bassist William Pope. The song has the vibe of Sly and the Family Stone meeting Lenny Kravitz. We have two tracks featuring award-winning vocalist Tony Lindsay, more Slight Return® exclusive content, Them Changes in memory of the late Buddy Miles, and Come and Get Your Love – a tribute to the band Redbone.

What can fans expect from your upcoming live shows?

Expect funky, hard driving rock with solos from everyone in the band – that includes myself, Tony Mitchell on percussion, William Pope on bass, Ronnie Karmo on drums, and Christian Vegh on guitar.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

On 1 March 2024, I am co-producing the first annual “Buddy Miles Day” in Detroit in conjunction with Boo O’Conner and the Buddy Miles family. It’s an honour to be playing and hosting this show which will be held in my hometown. We’re recognising Buddy’s music and accomplishments while jamming a live show with some of his former band mates and amazing guest musicians, including legendary bassist Billy Cox from Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys, iconic drummer Dennis Chambers, and others TBA – all backed by my band Slight Return®.

We are working with Folktellers Studios on their “Hero’s Journey” concert series. It’s the animated story of the making of a guitar hero (playing on a theatre screen) while Slight Return® performs. We also have shows coming up in USA and Canada.

We’ll be performing live with Ted Nugent vocalist Derek St Holmes. The show will benefit the Fallen & Wounded Soldiers Fund where 97% of every dollar goes directly to the veterans in the state of Michigan that are struggling.

For upcoming tour dates or to listen to their music, please visit