Interview: Mike Viola (opening for Rachael Yamagata @ The Basement, Sunday night)

It seemed like a strange billing – one of the most criminally underrated power-pop songwriters of our lifetime opening for a young, up-and-coming female singer-songwriter – a tour that makes a stop in Columbus, at The Basement, on Sunday night.

But, as Mike Viola explained when I talked to him on the phone from Alabama last week, it all makes sense. Viola is currently on tour promoting his latest release, Electro De Perfecto, which came out in October. If I’m doing my math correctly, this is Viola’s 11th release under either his own name, under the name The Candy Butchers, or a combination of the two, Mike Viola and The Candy Butchers. It’s hard to keep straight though one thing is for certain, if you’re a fan of power-pop music, you’ll want to get your hands on EVERYTHING Viola has done.

Unfortunately, though we talked for nearly 45 minutes, I completely forgot to ask him about his contributions to two recently released compilation albums. But, the cover songs deserve to be heard so check out his version the Smiths “How Soon is Now?” from the album Please Please Please: A Tribute to The Smiths and his version of Ratt’s “Round and Round” from Engine Room Recording’s Guilt By Association Vol. 3.

“How Soon is Now?”

“Round and Round”

How did your tour with Rachael Yamagata come about?

A couple of years ago we met and I started writing songs with her for her soon-to-be record. She was going through the ringer with Warner Bros. and eventually got dropped. She called on me to help her make her record – which I did. We put a bunch of the songs we wrote together on there. When her tour came up, she decided to hit the road and plunked down the money herself. She called me and said, “Look, I know you have a record out. Would you want to open and join me on my stage for my set?” I said, “Of course.”

I’ve toured a bunch with friends like Fountains of Wayne, They Might Be Giants, Robyn Hitchcock; it sucks having to play a set for 30-to-45 minutes and then sit around while your friends play music. It’s much more fun to join them on stage. Everyone’s like, “I don’t know how you have the energy to play all night” and I’m like, “This is what I do. I love it.”

Do you have a band with you on this tour?

In Columbus, I won’t. Either way is great. Rachael has commented on that, she’s like “Usually when somebody does their thing acoustic it’s stripped down and kind of just super singer/songwritery but you somehow manage to keep it energetic.” I found some guys in Nashville that are young and hungry and don’t mind doing what you have to do on the road. For a guy like me, it’s not very luxurious but they just want to tour with me so I think in 2012 I’m going to swing back around to all these markets I hit with Rachael and try to do a band show.

What are the audiences like?

We don’t share fans. Her fans are mostly women. My fans are mostly Beatles fans and fans of pop music. Not that girls don’t like the Beatles but my fans are usually dudes who just love pop music and their cute girlfriends. It’s crazy every night, the girls just get jiggy with Rachael, it’s unbelievable! But I’ve been making new fans a little bit here and there.

Do you run across music geeks in each market, people who actually know you and own some of your music?

Yeah, that’s been the most emboldening aspect of the whole tour for me. It’s beyond a couple hundred bucks in merch I make, the money I make to play, or hitting a Godhead-moment for a split second in the middle of a song – beyond all those gratifying things, it’s meeting people that are into it or have been into it. It helps a guy like me. It’s not my ego, it’s more like, “Oh, okay … someone’s listening. I’m connecting with somebody.” I remember loving Split Enz and all my friends didn’t know who the hell they were. I was one of those guys growing up. I still love music that has kind of been marginalized. I feel like the internet has really helped guys like me reaching guys like you.

You were born and raised on the East Coast, right?

Born in Boston, raised in Boston. At a pretty young age, I moved out of my house and I moved to New York and lived there. I started really young and then personal stuff happened. My dad died and I had to take care of my mom so I couldn’t really focus on the music but I grew as a songwriter. Then I got married to my childhood sweetheart, started writing good songs again and then she died. I moved to New York and within 3 or 4 months I had a record deal and a publishing deal and was on my way. It took me a while to break away from some management that wasn’t doing a heck of a great job and some of the hangups I had from everybody dying.

Now it’s like I feel like I’m starting again and it feels really good. I remember when I was younger and Neil Young turned 40 and he was talking about how sharp things become as you get older. Here’s a guy that writes real music, that has had real problems and keeps his shit together and stays original and is able to reach people. He’s always been a real inspiration to me.

Have you always supported yourself through music?

I have. Even though I get down on myself for still being in the trenches, it appeals to me and I’m making money, enough to pay the bills, so what’s the problem? I love it. What’s to be disgruntled about? What’s to be moaning and groaning about?

The biggest thing I’d like to change … not a mistake … but maybe the one thing I overlooked a little too much is that I wish I had been touring a lot more because there are fans out there, albeit humble in numbers, they are out there.

With every job, there are days where you just don’t want to go in, days where you want to throw up your hands and say, “I’m done. I can’t take any more.” Having spent your entire life creating music and being able to pay the bills because of it, do you ever have those days where you want to unplug your guitar and just walk away?

The only time it gets dark for me is when I’m sitting around and there’s nothing to do and then I’m like, “Why am I sitting around? Oh, I know why. I suck!” If you have a 9-to-5 job, I guess there are other things to be pissed off about but for somebody like me who freelances and is an artist to boot, sitting around idol is the only time it gets ugly.

You started writing music at such a young age. Did you always have the gift or did you have to learn to become a songwriter?

It was always there. It was never a conscious choice.

Putting out as much music as you do, where do you draw inspiration from? Do you keep a notebook close by so you can write down lyrics when they hit you?

It’s different all the time. I used to keep a notebook but now I don’t. I stopped writing song ideas down or recording song ideas 7 or 8 years ago. I rely on my memory. I feel like if the hook is good, I’ll remember it. I don’t record or write anything down until it’s time to shape it. Everyone has their own way, I have mine. Somebody called me a “spastic songwriter” which I kind of like. I’m just so enthralled by it, as close as I can stay to the mystery, the happier I am.

Did you start writing music so you could impress the girls? Or did you want to be the next Beatles?

I wish I was that cool. I wanted to be Kevin Cronin from REO Speedwagon! It’s the ugly truth. I wanted to get an afro but my mom said no. The cool thing about them is their songs are really rudimentary, as are the Eagles, so at 10 years old I could play those songs no problem. So I took those chords and very quickly started writing my own songs. It turned out I was a good singer so it happened very quickly. I was called a prodigy but that’s stupid. It’s rock n’ roll. It’s just 4 chords, there’s no such thing as a rock n’ roll prodigy, it’s an oxymoron. It was just the press having fun with a 14-year-old androgynous kid. It was the ’80s as well, so everyone was doing cocaine and freaking out over me. But I wasn’t that good.

Didn’t you get called – or compared to – Rick Springfield when you first started out?

Yeah, I totally was. I can’t recall, I’d be paraphrasing. I was compared to Joan Jett as well. We ended up sounding like the Buzzcocks but we were trying really hard to sound like Foreigner! I met this fan in Portland who has all my really early shit digitized and he has it on his iPhone – the early shit, like when I was 13. I don’t even have that stuff. I was just blown away. He brought some records that were really embarrassing, me with spiky hair. I can still listen to REO Speedwagon’s Hi-Infidelty. Foreigner 4 still melts me face. But, that being said, there’s other great music of course that I go way deeper with.

I’ve been a fan of yours since the first time I heard your 1999 album, Falling Into Place. But I find that the only thing I can tell people to have them say, “Oh! THAT’S who Mike Viola is”, is when I say, “Mike was the voice behind the singer who sang “That Thing You Do” (from the movie with the same name).

People our age know me from that. Younger people know me from Walk Hard. Nobody knows me from Falling into Place. The film thing has been mostly how kids know me. Even at the time, I was in my angry 20s and I didn’t want anything to do with That Thing You Do. Now I totally embrace it. I wish I could fill little theaters because of it, but that’s not what I spent my life trying to do. I have a new manager now and he’s like, “Is there anything we can do to tie you to that movie?” And I’m like, “No. It’s all going to be fine. It’s going to be a lot of little baby steps.” I’m pretty happy with the way things are.

How did you hook up with Victor Indrizzo (drums) and Sean Hurley (bass) for your lastest release, Electro De Perfecto? I recognize Victor’s name. Didn’t he play with Beck?

He played with Beck. He was in Redd Kross. He now plays with Sheryl Crow. He produced and wrote most of the Scott Weiland solo record. Sean was in Vertical Horizon. I met them in LA in the studio when we were recording music for Get Him to the Greek. We just were like “Oh shit, we need to get into the studio and jam.” And when we did, that record came out of it. It only took us 10 days to make it. I wrote all the songs for that band because I had songs prepared for my next record. I brought them to the jam session and they just didn’t sound good. So I just wrote songs for the band. That’s why the record feels like it has a cohesiveness to it more than some of my other records.

Mike Viola opens for Rachael Yamagata (and then performs as a member of her band) on Sunday night at The Basement. Tickets are $17 at the door.

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