Mike Viola on Get Him to the Greek, Breaking Bad, and Living with Kim Fowley at 13
Mike Viola is one of those guys you've heard a hundred times and not realized it. He's the vocalist singing "That Thing You Do" (from the 1996 film of the same name); his '90s band The Candy Butchers scored serious buzz along side his friends Fountains of Wayne; he's written songs for Get Him to the Greek (including "Furry Walls," the best Oasis tune Oasis didn't write) and Walk Hard; and has sat behind the production desk for Mandy Moore and Rachael Yamagata.
Viola is scheduled to perform Wednesday, November 30, at the Crescent Ballroom with Yamagata, as part of her band and in support of his new power pop record, Electro de Perfecto. Viola took some time away from band rehearsal in Woodstock, New York, to discuss Breaking Bad, making music for movies, and his unusual experiences as a 13-year-old with maniac producer/rock 'n' roll legend Kim Fowley.
Up on the Sun: Thanks for talking, Mike. I really like the new record. I've been a fan of yours since [struggles to recall name...]
Mike Viola: Live at La Bonbonniere?
No, since the one with "What To Do With Michael."
Ah, Hang on Mike.
That's the one I got from a friend, and from then on, I've followed your stuff. I've really enjoyed it, and this new record [Electro de Perfecto] is my favorite thing you've done, I think.
It's not unlike Hang on Mike in as much as its approach to just writing about what's right there; what's right at the surface wanting to come out, you know? Rather than spend all this time kind of digging and trying to find out what the record is all about. It's just, "You know, it's really about that," and then I just kind of did it. That's how Hang on Mike was done, too. Even though they are sonically way different, a lot of fans have been comparing the two.
So you start off with the lyric "I'm on a mission." What was the mission with this record? Was it what you just said, focusing on what is direct?
Yeah, because, for someone like me, who has a couple records [under his belt], and I've had years behind me, it's easy to get caught up in this idea of "What could I have done different, or what should I be doing different, what can I do to make this different?" Really, at the end of that day, if you just focus on what's right in front of you, it's like, "Things are pretty great, you know?" In all their kind of gore and glory. [It's] like the TV show Breaking Bad, where like, things are just kind of put out there, and a normal life all of the sudden becomes supernormal, or supernatural, rather. And you're like "Woah." And all our lives are kind of like that in a nutshell; these little moments -- and we're so distracted by malls and TV show -- it's so easy to forget that it's pretty much a gory, glorious life that we lead. So for me the mission was to take it all, and get into it, and use it as positivity, not negative.
[It became kind of an] electric experience, because I met these great musicians in L.A. working on that movie Get Him to the Greek, and I met them during that. We just started jamming like teenagers. Just jamming, and you know, these songs came out of that experience. These songs came out of that experience, and it all just became super-positive. I think that's the mission is to be like, "C'mon, man, you get to play music," and when it's really stripped down and supercharged, like this record, that's when it's really fun.
I think a lot of guys in my idiom turn to -- and I respect it and I've done it in the past -- but you turn to "chamber music." The chamber pop kind of thing, and you almost justify your "adultness" or something; you start to get more ornate and complex. I don't know what happens [but] it's easy to do that, and a lot of people miss it on this record because it's just guitar and bass and drums. Other people miss the ornate stuff that people do, but I think it would take away from the message, you know. It would kind of slow down the car. It slows down the dynamic.
You mentioned Breaking Bad, where the drama comes from these bare-bones, emotional moments. It's like a Raymond Carver story or something. It's like, "This is it." And you find the drama in the simplicity.
That's right. That's exactly right. That's what I think makes that show such a success, as far as connecting to people. It's like, "Yeah, I get that."
Where does the title of this record come from?El Mundo De Perfecto by Mike Viola
My daughter is 7, and she's taking Spanish. There's a song on the record called "El Mundo de Perfecto," which is basically, "This is the perfect world/This is the perfect world." And she loved it, just [repeating] "el mundo de perfecto" I thought, that's awesome. And living in L.A., there's Spanish everywhere. Everywhere. You go to Home Depot and the signs are in Spanish. And I just got this idea of L.A., and remember the early Pixies records, where he just throws Spanish in? I loved that as a kid. I was like, "Why is he doing that?" You've got to think it just has everything to do with his surroundings. I started to do that, and she came up with idea, because she loves how rocking it was. You know, she's 7, and in the seven years she's been alive, everything I've done, kind of like with that record Lurch I did [and] Just Before Dark, it was kind of [quiet] and acoustic. So she came up with "Electro de Perfecto." I loved that . . . like something Ringo would say.
It has that vibe.
I tried to change it at one point, and my manager was like, "You're crazy! It's perfect!" I was like, "Yeah, but I don't want people to think it's an electro record." He was like, "Nah, they won't."
The album cover has that electric power-pop vibe.
Yeah, yeah. Cool, man. Glad that you see it that way.
That's the stuff I most dig. I think my two favorite songs are "Me and My Drinking" and "Closet Clutter." What's going on with that last one -- it seems like there's kind of a cryptic thing. The lyrics don't tell the story in a very linear way, but what's going on there? Is this someone digging through the closet discovering old records?
Well, it's actually called "Closet Cutter" [Note: The promotional download has the song incorrectly listed]. Cutter is like . . . you know, someone who cuts themselves in secret. It's self-laceration. You cut yourself up [to do] this personal penance. It's a metaphor, but you know, it also kind of strikes home in a way. With the "Beatles and The Stones lyric" ["Don't blame your parent/Blame The Beatles and The Rolling Stones] . . . I thought about getting myself into the mess that I'm in. Which is being a middle-aged guy who wakes up every morning chasing down this song. I've never been one for chasing down success. I just haven't. And maybe that's one of the things that's kept my career at a slow boil, but I never have been that kind of person. I know people like that, so I know for certain that I'm not like that. Anyway, dealing with this hunter's desire to just kind of like, "find the song." Almost in a Jack Kerouac kind of way. I grew up with that stuff, slipped into that paradigm really easily. As a young man [I identified] with kind of the wanderer, the searcher, the seeker.
I was thinking you go to psychotherapy, you take medication, you fight with your spouse, whoever is in your life, and it's just a mess, you know? We all are. They tell you to blame your parents all the time, like it's your parent's fault. But throughout psychotherapy, I realized, 'Those guys didn't have a fighting chance, because they were both abused by their parents. And it's just a cycle of gore. I just decided, let's just blame The Beatles and The Rolling Stones [laughs]. If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be chasing this specter. Again, it's not fame, it's more like . . . I think you might know what it is being a fan of this music. People like John Wesley Harding, Marshall Crenshaw, all the guys in Fountains of Wayne, we all share this -- and I've talked about it with those guys -- this weird uncanny tenacity, [to] just hang on to this idea -- there's another song around the corner, we gotta go get it. Then it can be better than yours, you know? This race that The Beatles and The Stones kind of pushed on us. I think the song is sort of about that, but not in a lofty way. Just like you said, it's a very vague, three-minute thing.
Not to mention all the other pop culture references in the song; Kim Fowley, Allister Crowley. In a lot of ways, I know you are going for rhymes there.
Well, I actually lived with Kim Fowley for two weeks.
Yeah, when I was 13. Um, it's a messed-up little story, but it's pretty awesome. Basically, the short story is: I won a contest. He put this contest out into the world, and he's like "Send your tapes in." So my mom sent this tape in of me and my band, and he summoned me to L.A. to live with him, and he taught me so much about how to dress, how to stand on stage. Things like that.
I was 13 years old. I came home and I showed all my friends, like "Hey, check out these songs I wrote." They were like, "This doesn't sound like Foreigner! [Laughs] This doesn't sound like Journey! What are you . . . [this is] fag music. You're a fag, look at you with your spiky hair and your purple jeans."
So, I mean, I ended up saying, "Ah, fuck it, I'm not going to do this Kim Fowley record." So I didn't, and he called me up and said, "What are you doing?" He told me to get my mom, like, "Get that cunt on the phone!" So I hung up and I haven't talked to him since [laughs]. I'm certainly not mad at him; I'm a big fan of his. It's really funny. He loomed large in my past. I was going for the rhymes, but it was definitely pointed at that.
It reminded me of "Kiss Alive" [from Hang on Mike] I love that way you zoom in on these specific pop culture items.
Like "Benny and the Jets."
Yeah, stuff that feels resonant. You say "REO," you say Stones, and they just mean things to people. You get to bank on all the ideas that people already had about that without having to do all the exposition.
Yeah, that's the miracle of pop culture, isn't it? . . . Where you can say something and your brain goes into paints [the rest of the] picture . . . I mean, you say "Beatles on Ed Sullivan," and we weren't alive, but [laughs] . . .
It's like a common language. It's like religious language, and now we have this other thing . . .
Your movie work...[The music in] Get Him to the Greek and Walk Hard are both really fascinating.
Both of those movies, the producers of the music stayed true to what my demo was. Like, I think I enjoy Walk Hard as a movie. I can just continuously watch that movie over and over again. There's just all these Easter eggs in that movie. Get Him to the Greek seems to be the one that my extended family loves. It's really about gut laughter. But I think my favorite is Walk Hard.
It's like we were saying, about the common language of pop culture, that movie tapped into that, and the music was a big part of that.
Totally, yeah. It was ridiculous watching it being made. An army of people made that movie. I couldn't believe it. It really humbled me to the movie making experience. Making a record, there's generally three or four people doing it, [but a movie has] hundreds of people involved, and millions of dollars, hanging on this one guys idea. It's crazy [laughs].
I don't even know you would deal with that pressure.
For a songwriter, I had written over 30 songs for that movie. They put me in a hotel, and the way Judd Apatow works, is he'll call me up and say: "We need a song called "Furry Walls." I'm like, "Okay, cool, about that scene at the end?" "Yeah, yeah. Okay, cool, send me what you got."
So then I'll work on it. I'll do seven or eight versions of that song, until I get a phone call from him saying "Okay, what we really need to do is narrow it down - 'Furry Walls. Furry Walls.' Really drive it home."
Then I'll rewrite eight more.
It's unbelievable the quantity of stuff they get out of you. The money, frankly, doesn't really measure into the amount of work you put into it. 'Cause if you're really solely doing it for the money; it's not worth it. But I don't do it because of the money, I am just really fascinated by this really cool character that Russell Brand and Jason Segel created, you know? I just wanted to put songs in his mouth. It's a very sexy idea working on major motion pictures. People think you must be getting rich off it. But it's just like any other job, it's not a big cash cow coming home. Dan Bern and I did an interview for this program, I can't remember the name of it right now, but it's a financial program on NPR.
Yeah! We did that, and they spent, like, an hour with us trying to dig out some financial advice about [making music for movies]. Dan and I were like, "Yeah, I don't know." They were like, "Well, do you guys have an agent? How does one go about doing this?" Just trying to get some sort of financial advice out of us . . . "I don't know, Judd just kind of calls us . . ." We must have looked like the biggest slackers.