Good Luck, Happiness, and Joy: An Interview with Mikey J

Welcome to the first of several posts on musicians who recently participated in the Lights and Lines Album Writing Club! The idea was for members of the club to write and record an album or EP in a single month. As a mentor in the club, I had the privilege of listening to a wide range of recordings and styles—punk, folk, classical, and electronic (to name just a few). At the end of the month, prizes were awarded in various categories, including a Best Single award for Mikey J’s “My Little Dragon Girl,” an infectious ska-inflected pop tune with deadpan vocals and tight musicianship.

First, congratulations! How did you get into recording music?

Cheers Marc! I’m still struggling to believe that I got one vote! I’ve always enjoyed writing my own songs, probably even more so than learning and playing ‘the classics’! First thing I ever recorded was when I was a seventeen-year-old with my high school band (Blue Tracer). We spent a wonderful afternoon around a mini disc recording thingy and made a pretty rudimentary EP (which is currently still on my BandCamp page). While I’d love to say that sparked a lifelong pursuit of recording album after album, it wasn’t really until COVID that I began to get back into recording properly. The forced isolation & increase in time gave me the push that I needed!

What was it like recording an album in a month?

I generally work pretty quickly when inspiration hits and always have a bunch of progressions, licks and ideas rolling around in my head. But the forced timeframe raised things up a notch! For me, lyric writing has always been the most challenging part of the process and I think knowing that I had to get things done by a certain point in the month actually made it easier to get the lyrics down! Having the forum of other artists and the mentors was also amazing. They were super supportive, quick to offer advice or suggestions and generally just fun to be around! Sharing our ideas of songs, processes, art work and struggles was really inspiring and it was great to know others where experiencing some of the same feelings!

What kinds of challenges did you face, and how did you overcome them?

The biggest challenge was, and always is, lyric writing! I always write my instrumental parts first and then try to get a feel for what thought or emotion the song gives me! As we had the added layer of a timeframe, that meant that I had to work that part out quicker than I normally would, but I think that actually worked in my favour this time around! I also get a little gun shy around cover art, but the forum and the wonderful Twitter community helped me choose the artwork!

I’m curious about the cover image for your award-winning single, “My Little Dragon Girl.” Can you describe it? What does it mean?

It’s a field of red with a golden inner border surrounding the Chinese character for ‘dragon’! The colours were chosen because they also have pretty significant meaning in Chinese culture, red being the colour of good luck, happiness and joy, as well as a colour that wards off evil spirits. Gold is the colour of royalty.

Is there a little dragon girl in your life?

Why yes there is! As with most of my ‘sappy love songs’, My Little Dragon Girl is based on my darling wife Ella. When I tell people that she’s a dragon they normally look at me a little weirdly, but it’s because she was born in the Chinese Year of the Dragon!

Mikey J and Ella

A while back, you mentioned that English is not the primary language spoken in your household. What language do you speak at home, and how does that language—and culture—influence your songwriting and life more broadly?

As you’ve probably guessed, that language is Chinese! China, and Shanghai in particular, is my second home. I moved there in 2005 as a short break from life in Australia. I then met my wife, we got married had a son and all of a sudden it was twelve years later! China and Chinese culture has shaped me in so many ways – in fact I had originally planned to write ‘My Little Dragon Girl’ in Chinese! That didn’t eventuate due to the time frame – I couldn’t get my mouth around the words and make it sound good in time!

I love the trumpet solo—and the guitar solo that follows it! Who played those parts?

Ah, the trumpet parts are my favourite part of the song and I’m really lucky that I was able to convince an old friend of mine, Danny Davis (an amazing Aussie musician and educator, who I met while working in China) to record them for me! I have had horn parts in a few other tracks in the past and have only ever done them with midi instruments in GarageBand, so having real life horns on this one makes it even more special.

As for the guitar solo, that’s all me!

Nicely done! What is your recording setup? Do you have a dedicated space, or do you make do with a laptop and whatever is at hand?

Mikey J’s studio setup: “pretty simple.”

My recording setup is pretty simple. Everything is recorded on either my iPad or phone in Garageband! My Line 6 Spider amp plugs straight into the iPad to record all my guitar and bass lines. That sits in my living room and annoys the rest of my family, but I can record that even while my sons yells at his game and my wife watches TV! As for vocals (and in the event of acoustic guitar, cello or mandolin parts which I do regularly) my Shure mic plugs into my phone and I hide myself away in our guest bedroom / vocal booth! All my drum and percussion parts are programmed through the smart drummers in GarageBand (except for one of the tracks on my album for the challenge, which was graciously supplied by Shippa (Twitter: @shippa63) – another awesome Aussie musician! I then transfer everything into Logic Pro on my Mac and pretend I know what I’m doing when it comes to mixing!

Of course, “My Little Dragon Girl” is part of a larger project. Can you describe the album and let readers know where they can find it?

My full submission is an album called Wonderings. It has nine tracks of my usual eclectic style ranging from rock to power-pop, ska to dream pop, blues to retro pop rock! As with most albums, they are mostly sappy love songs, with one vengeful revenge track and a dreamy lament about not dwelling on the past! In addition to working with Danny Davis and Shippa, I have also collaborated with one of the kings of power-pop, Scoopski (Twitter: @scoopskitheband) on a power-pop remake of my Simon & Garfunkel inspired track, ‘When We’re Old’, from my last album!

‘My Little Dragon Girl’ is going to be released on Lights and Lines at the beginning of September, whileWondering will be releasing a short time after that! Both will be available on all platforms!

Anything else on the horizon?

As I said I’ve always got things rolling around the old noggin! But I’m most excited about a new project I’ve got cooking with Indie Twitter royalty, Kelly (Twitter: @kelly_kintner) & Kerri Kintner (Twitter: @keri_kintner) and Chris from LaLettes (Twitter: @LaLettes)! Not too much more I can say about that at the moment, except that it is exciting and I think you’ll all love what we are putting together!

All great people! I’m sure I’ll love it. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me—and congratulations once again on the win!  

Cheers Marc!

Let’s Plug in and Play: An Interview with Phil Yates

Phil Yates has been on my radar for a while now, but I really sat up and took notice of his music when I found it he was going to be coming to the next town over from mine — Ardmore, Pennsylvania — for a show with Philadelphia locals Scoopski and the Bees, along with New Jersey’s own self-proclaimed lo-fi rock god Graham Repulski. Curious about what might bring him from Chicago to the Philly suburbs, I dropped him a line–but not before buying his most recent album, which I highly recommend!

You teach statistics at the college level, and you’re also a musician. Was it a case of getting your degree in statistics after being in music for a while, or was getting the degree always part of the plan?

I started playing guitar and bass when I was 15 after years of playing the trumpet. For the guitar, it was the geometry of chord shapes that really interested me at the time. Having the book of the complete scores of The Beatles was my “go to” manual. Truthfully, I think I went into math because I thought I could get a job crunching numbers for the Chicago Cubs. I had some friends when I was about 22 years old who pushed me to do a couple of open mics. I had just started graduate school at that time mainly because there were two distinctly non-math jobs I had lined up after graduation fell through due to lack of funding for those positions. Off to grad school I went. The balancing of musician Phil and academic Phil began then.

Do the two worlds intersect? How do they inform each other?

Ha! They do not intersect at all. Maybe someday I will figure out how to combine music with statistical research and write a paper that nobody would ever read – as opposed to writing songs that nobody would ever hear.

I’m also thinking about the performative aspects of teaching. Do you bring any elements of rock-n-roll stagecraft (for lack of a better phrase) to the classroom? Do you ever feel like starting class with a booming HELLLOOO CHICAGO!!!?

This is a great question! I think being comfortable on stage makes me more comfortable in front of a room full of students and vice-versa. For people who see me play live, I sometimes channel my inner Billy Bragg or Robyn Hitchcock and get a little chatty, sometimes to the chagrin of bandmates. The banter I have with the audience on stage is not that different from the banter I have with students in the classroom.

I just bought your 2018 album Party Music on vinyl for $15 (including shipping!) through BandCamp. That’s an incredible deal for fans, but I can’t imagine you’re making a whole lot of money on your end. Am I right about that? Are you looking at the decision to release the album on vinyl from an economic perspective, or do you have another way of looking at it?

That steal of a deal is an attempt to clear some space for when the new record arrives on vinyl. Futureman Records is releasing it. The album, in theory, will arrive mid-to-late July. It’s called A Thin Thread, and it is the first full-length release with the Chicago version of the Affiliates. Also, it will be $20 plus shipping from Bandcamp. I’ve released a handful of singles with the new crew. In the grand scheme of things, I hope to break even on these vinyl or CD releases. Having a steady day job I guess reduces the pressure of trying to immediately sell out all the merch. I consider myself fortunate in that regard. I listen to CDs in the car, but my wife and I own cars that are 10 to 15-years old. At home, we listen to a lot of records. In the end, my decision-making boils down to “what format am I buying?”

You released the vinyl edition of Party Music through Futureman Records. What’s your relationship with them?  How did you find them – or did they find you? What do they offer that you’d rather not do on your own?

The album before Party Music! was No Need To Beg. I was lucky to work with Almost Halloween Time Records, a tiny label out of Bari, Italy, on that release. An artist, Luigi Falagario, runs that label. I must give him some press here because what he does is amazing! He hand-draws every record sleeve on his releases, making each release a work of art. Anyway, Luigi was too busy to release Party Music!, so  when it was finished being recorded, I searched for other small labels to release it. I found Futureman Records, a label out of Detroit run by Keith Klingensmith (of the wonderful band The Legal Matters). He agreed to put it out. When working with them, I am responsible for any CD or vinyl production. Futureman Records helps with promotion. That saves me time of contacting reviewers at magazines, blogs, online radio stations, and avenues like that. He can do that for me. Promotion is a pain in the ass. Also, I find that being on label opens a few more doors in terms of booking shows.

I think it took me exactly twenty-four hours to get the pun in your band name – Phil Yates and the Affiliates. It’s the kind of name that was meant to be. Do you remember when the epiphany struck? I picture the clouds parting and light shining down on you. Or maybe a clap of thunder. Did the name precede the band, or was it the other way around?

I was doing the solo acoustic thing for a while and was excited to finally recruit musicians to beef up my songs. The name came when I had the original lineup of the band in Burlington, Vermont. I distinctly remember that I wanted something like Phil Yates & The First Dates, which while not terrible, it is not very good. It was either my bassist at the time, Raph Worrick, or the lead guitarist, Kevin Stevens, who said “Why not Phil Yates & The Affiliates?” Boom! Done! Now we need to learn more of my songs and go play shows. People either get that pun right away, like you did, or it takes them a long, long time for it to click. The head music editor of the weekly alternative newspaper in Burlington (I won’t embarrass him by calling him out by name) came to me, after one of my last shows before moving back to Chicago, and said “I’ve reviewed and seen you guys for years and only now I get the name.”

How long has the band been together, and has the lineup changed over time?

Phil Yates & The Affiliates started in Fall 2010 in Burlington, Vermont. The lineup was Raph Worrick (bass), Kevin Stevens (lead guitar), and Dev Jana (drums). Dev moved away after two years and then we had Jake Blodgett behind the kit. He appears on Oh So Sour, No Need To Beg, and Party Music!. That last album took a while to mix. In fact, I moved to Chicago in 2017 before it was officially released in 2018. Since I had an album by Phil Yates & The Affiliates being released, I needed to form a new band to play those songs. With the blessing from the old Affiliates, I kept the name and now have new Affiliates. They play on the new record, A Thin Thread. Shout out to Jay Lyon (bass), Richard Bandini (lead guitar), and Bill Urban (drums).

You’re touring this summer with stops in Chicago, Detroit, Dayton, Philadelphia(ish), and Winooski, Vermont. How did you decide the itinerary? What goes into planning a tour of this scale? Why do you do it?

First, Richard and I both teach – me at a university and Richard at an elementary school. I love this version of the band and want to play as many shows as possible. We chose Detroit because of Futureman. Dayton appeared because I was having no luck with Cleveland and my search kept pushing me further south in Ohio. Pittsburgh might be in the works. I have a handful of friends in Philly, and that bill has come together nicely with BEES!, Scoopski, and Graham Repulski. NYC is in the works. Winooski is outside of Burlington, and where I am playing is my favorite place to play in the greater Burlington area. A lot of emailing bookers and networking with bands I know in those various locations goes a long way in the planning. I do it because I love playing live. I hate recording. I hate the entire process, but it is a necessary evil. Let’s plug in and play! Get sweaty, play my three-minute pop songs loudly, and hang out with other like-minded artists. That’s it. That’s a perfect evening.

Is the tour in support of a new release? 

Yes. A Thin Thread should be on my doorstep mid-to-late July. I will have a short run of CDs for promo purposes (college radio, Futureman’s sending to blogs, etc.).

Any plans for after the tour?

We will have an album release show on August 7 at my neighborhood record store, Tone Deaf Records in Chicago. We will be playing a handful of shows in Chicago the rest of the year. Then I get back to academic work. I also plan on going to some shows. I have tickets for Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe in August, the Decemberists (also in August), and will be taking my daughter to her first “in door” show in September for her birthday – Pavement (one of her favorite bands, which is a parenting win!). She’s been to a ton of outdoor shows with us.

Did I geek out a little and design a poster for the Ardmore show? Yes, I did.

THE ANTI-POP REVOLUTION IS HERE! An Interview with Chris Triggs of the La La Lettes

I first heard the La-La-Lettes a number of months ago when my buddies in Thee Rakevines gave them a shout-out on Twitter. The band hales from Colwyn Bay, Wales, UK, and somehow manages to fuse two seemingly irreconcilable modes of expression by being both intensely experimental and fun at the same time.

Give their 2020 albums Easy Peasy and April a listen, and you’ll hear clear echoes of the Byrds, Syd Barrett, and the Rolling Stones, while 2021’s ONKY and i Godge, Goj, Gols and Gods explore musical territory best exemplified by acts like the Velvet Underground, the Residents, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, and Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.

Full disclosure: As anyone who reads this blog with any regularity knows, I recently had a chance to work with the La-La-Lettes on their double-A-side single, “Song 71 (You Didn’t Love Me)”/“J’ecoute La Radio,” which calls to mind a cross between the Beach Boys and Bob Dylan. I used the opportunity to chat with Chris Triggs, the brains behind the band, about songwriting, music production, and his creative process.

I know of four La-La-Lettes albums and a handful of singles all released over the last two years. You seem to have come out of nowhere! Were you doing anything else musically before the La-La-Lettes?

 Yes, but years ago. I’d been either writing and recording for about 20+ years, climbing the ladder of Hardware recording items, ‘Tape recorder’/’Four Track’ and then ‘Cool Edit Pro’. Then about at the end of 2011, the Time/Sony computer I worked on blew up, and I thought it was time for a rest, which carried on until late 2019. I thought I’d miss it, but my son who was born in 2005 was at an interesting age by 2011 and his life took over mine and I didn’t miss the guitar, writing or anything. Strange really, thinking about it now, but I didn’t write anything for years at one point.

In late 2018, I fell into a real dark hole, and 2019 was my year of hell. Luckily, in December ’19, I was talking to my sister, and she suggested taking up music again, it was like a ‘lightbulb moment’, throw all my pain into music ‘brilliant’. Although my issues were still raging, picking up the guitar helped. I think that’s why ‘Easy Peasy’ sounds so edgy, I was getting a ‘lot out’. After finishing that first album, I didn’t want to let it just lie, so I decided to put it on Spotify etc, which led me to Twitter.

It’s amazing how therapeutic music can be! I’m picking up a strong 60s vibe in a lot of your music. Who are some of your favorite bands from that era, and why does that music resonate so strongly with you?

I just followed the trend when I was a kid, listening to stuff like The Police, Blondie and all that. Then one day I was watching TV and this advertisement came on for a new Beach Boys compilation, and that’s when I heard (a snippet) of ‘Good Vibrations’ for the first time. I guess that was the Siren calling. That was it, Beach Boys forever almost. I realized quite early on that I wasn’t just listening to the songs, but making out the sounds of the guitars, the bass, the amazing drums (probably by Hal Blaine) and of course those vocals. It just spoke volumes to me. As time went on, I listened more intently to my dad’s Beatles LPs, being knocked out by the sounds created on ‘Strawberry Fields’, ‘I Am the Walrus’ etc. They were just gorgeous sounds for my delicate ears. Then I sought of discovered other bands, that friends/colleagues suggested, The Byrds were next, I love David Crosby’s songs (still do), and all that stretched into other avenues, Jefferson Airplane, The Mamas and the Papas, that whole Californian late 60s thing was it for me. Then also late 60’s Motown stuff, Tammi Terrell (greatest voice ever). It was a 60’s thing, tape hiss everything, just beautiful.

Does the name La-La-Lettes have special significance?

No! Hahahaha! At the time I was about to put Easy Peasy online and realized I required a band name, I was reading an article about The Faces who have an album called Oh La La. So I used ‘La-La’ and thought ‘Let’s call it that’ and I wrote ‘The La-La-Lettes’ adding an extra ‘T’ and ‘E’ to be silly. Means nothing lol.

But also in line with some of those great 60s bands like the Marvelettes! Along similar lines, your titles are fascinating. Where did ONKY and i Godge, Goj, Gols and Gods come from?

Years ago, there was a game show called ‘Strike it Lucky’ and one Christmas they did a kids edition, which I remember being hilarious. One question asked to one little girl was, ‘Who was friends with George and Zippy in the (kids) TV show Rainbow’, people from the UK will know the answer is ‘Bungle’, BUT this little 4/5 year old said “ONKY”, I just howled with laughter and the name stuck.

‘Godge’ is a little more tricky. In the late 90’s I did an album called ‘An afternoon with the Gods’, which I did on 4-track. Anyway, when I was doing ‘Godge’ I noticed a similarity in the songs of both albums. I didn’t want to call it ‘An Afternoon with the Gods 2’, I didn’t want a connection, so I made up the word ‘Godge’ and elaborated. I’m not sure, but I think ‘Godge’ actually has a definition,  I think it means something along the lines of ‘punching wind’. In the lyrics of ‘Oh, how we used to laugh’, there’s a part which says ‘pushing against the tide’, which was weird if the meaning of ‘Godge’ is correct.

As a musician—and, more broadly, as an artist—you make a lot of decisions that I’d describe as “anti-pop.” A lot of the sounds on i Godge, Goj, Gols and Gods are jarring, and you’re not afraid to release music that strays off the grid in terms of key and tempo. Those decisions, I have to say, really make your music come to life. What’s the rationale behind them?

“Anti-Pop!!!” What a cool description. I must admit I was on a bit of a roll during the making of ‘Godge’, most of the riffs, chord sequences and ideas came before I’d written a word. It’s a huge mix of influences on that album. Dylan, Beatles, Sex Pistols, Beach Boys of course) and others. So I was really spoilt for choice over stuff I had available, and just had to cram it all together. Lyrically, every song on ‘Godge’ is about someone I know, and to be honest, I’m very proud of it.

I guess I look at a high percentage of bands/artists I’ve discovered on Twitter as “Anti-Pop”. I like to think of us all as the ‘”new wave”, The Kintners, Lunar Plexus, Temporary Longterm Positions, Fendahlene, Thee Rakevines, Blank Cassettes, The Last Ghost, Oplaadtijd, McDead, Touanda, Moistule, Miss Kitty and Rubber Clown Car and the work you’re producing are just some excellent examples. They’ve all done incredible stuff, all different types of music too, brilliant albums, everything. It feels good to be involved. THE ANTI-POP REVOLUTION IS HERE…

Let’s hope so! I feel like the public appetite for interesting music—music that breaks rules and challenges the listener’s expectations—just doesn’t exist. To put it crudely, there isn’t really a market for it. No one’s banging down the door for the kind of music that you and I and others like us make. Which raises a question I think about from time to time regarding my own music: Why make it? And, of course, what keeps you going?

I love the thought of a blank canvas, to paint a picture, to make it interesting and ‘happy’, I keep going because of this. I’ve always been the same since I was a child, inventing, creating, I can’t stop it, it’s a passion. You’re right of course, there’s no market for us lot, lol. But I believe something will happen, doors always open on a journey.

The latest single, “J’ecoute La Radio,” is sung in French. What was behind that decision?

Lol, I work in the Oil and Gas industry cataloging maps, and one day I was working on some French data and I needed to translate a couple of words on ‘Google translate’, which I’ve done hundreds of times before, but this one day, I was just in a funny mood, and began writing words/lyrics onto google translate, which is just a silly idea really. I put the lines into order on a file and printed the sheet. I just fancied doing something different to see if I could do it. Musically it took 3 attempts to get the melody right, it was originally an earworm (a nasty one too).

Needless to say, I’m impressed with your output. Four albums in two years! What’s your recording process like?

Very instant. I have no patience with recording. It’s a ‘now or never’ attitude. Even when I’m recording, I look for a bit of improvisation, mad really, as sometimes when I come to doing the bass or 2nd guitar I forget what I’ve done!

I’m always looking for that one ‘word’, ‘rhyme’, ‘riff’ or a ‘weird chord’ even to help make a song interesting enough for me to like it. As said earlier with ‘Godge’ I had loads of things ready before writing a word

“J’ecoute” was perhaps took an hour, acoustic guitar/vocal, bass, drums, vocal/vocal/vocal/vocal/vocal, electric guitar, Marc Schuster yaaaay. Easy Peasy, love it.

Me too! And speaking of your creative output, what do you have in the works?

I do have a 5th album “Obsession” ready to go. But, I just love working on instinct at the moment. I recently did an E.P. in two days (Days of Winter), and I keep looking for the next song, the next single. I have an idea for something along the lines of a ‘Bo Diddley’ tune for a Protest song, but we’ll see.

Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, Chris!