by: Ryan Heape
This is probably where I ought to refresh or introduce everyone to the story of Mike Kelly. It started with drumming and Warped Touring for early-aughts California punk rock bands Point Of Recognition and Letter Kills. Then there was the time when Kelly was at South Plains College hitting a creative dead-end. There was an inner-paradigm shift involving an embrace of folk music and Townes Van Zandt; and later a harrowing, literally near-death experience that accelerated the development of Kelly’s debut, 2010’s “Wake The Dead.” Often these kinds of narrative hooks are unearned and misleading, but the whole thing checks out in an astonishing way. And when I asked, Kelly made it clear that this story is inseparable from who he is as a person and as a musician.
A Mike Kelly show like the one at Blue Light this Friday, June 22, is a fun yet very beer-bottle-clenching experience. There’s honest, accessible personality to his songs as well as (and sometimes, more importantly) a tastefully arranged sound. When you hear that a guy with a punk rock background is busy writing country music in Austin, you expect a forced, unearned aggression. You sigh, and brace yourself for the inevitable over-distorted guitars loud in the forefront of a forgettable debauch that claims to cross genres, man. On the contrary, Kelly seems to have figured out his shit: his records end up feeling a lot like Slaid Cleaves or early Cory Morrow, but with more whimsy. When he told me his upcoming sophomore record would be “more rocking,” I felt less apprehension than I did curious anticipation.
And that narrative? Still relevant, still ongoing. I spoke with Mike Kelly this week about the new record he’s working on, his Lubbock experience, and what that pivotal skirmish with death still means to him. The Blue Light will host Kelly and his band on Friday night, June 22.
New Slang: I understand you’re working on your new single with Adam Odor right now. What can we expect from the new material?
Mike Kelly: It’s more rocking. More pop than my last album too. The last one had a little more organic, Americana flair. This time is different: I wanted to make something that was exciting, fun to listen to, had a lot of energy without losing the “country” or “Americana” sound. I just didn’t want to keep playing by the rules. I didn’t want to have to go by the same chord progressions or have the textbook Americana lyrical content that I’ve seen lately. We pushed the boundaries with the kind of instruments we used, too.
NS: Has this energetic direction been pushed by all the live shows you’ve played over the last two, three years?
MK: I have a lot of friends in the Texas country music scene and I love listening to their stuff, but there’s a lack of energy around this whole scene as far as branching out, using different instruments, thinking outside the box. That lit a fire under my ass. It made me want to make something that was different and energetic but remembering to keep depth in the lyrics.
NS: Are we going to hear some of these new tunes live on Friday night?
MK: Yeah, I’ve been touring “Wake The Dead” for about a year and a half so it’s good to get those new songs worked in there. Also, my band has been playing with me for a long time; they need something new to play too. They don’t get paid a whole lot. Anything I can do in the live set to make it more interesting for everybody, I’m gonna do it.
NS: So thoughtful.
MK: Well, there’s a lot of people who sell a lot of koozies and t-shirts and make a lot of money. For them it’s easy to keep band members because they have the cash flow to do it and we don’t have that. My guys don’t get paid hardly at all, and me, I don’t get paid hardly at all. So it turns into, “well let’s make this fun.” Like Adam Odor, that guy plays bass with me and he’s won Grammys. I can’t pay him what he’s worth, so in order to keep everyone happy it has to be a great time.
NS: The story behind that debut album is still remarkable. Is that experience is still driving you as an artist?
MK: Yes. In every way, it’s made me grow personally. There’s not a lot of difference between who I am as a person and who I am as an artist, they’re bunched together. Of course, every day is a good day to be alive. I mean, I have dietary restrictions, I have medicine I have to take, there are things I’m not allowed to do. It’s made my life more interesting. But as an artist, I do anything I want now; I don’t do anything for anybody else. I do what I feel like I need to do as an artist because tomorrow, I could be dead. Yeah I’d like to get more fans, play bigger rooms, get paid more but I’m not chasing money or fame. I want to give someone something to listen to where they’re like, “This is cool. I can really feel this.” That’s pretty much my goal. I’ve been there, knocking on heaven’s door, literally that close. So I’m not trying to appease a certain group of people or be “Texas Country” or “Americana.” I don’t really care. I’m just gonna make music. I know that sounds dumb, but I have been so much happier since my heart surgery. Because when I’m playing or writing music, there are no rules for me. I do whatever I want, because I don’t know how much time I have left.
NS: A lot of people aren’t born with an appreciation for country music, and I was fascinated to hear about your punk rock roots. What was the kind of stuff you were into as a teenager?
MK: I started playing drums when I was 13, and me and my friends started this band called Thee Cadavers. We were playing pretty much the same stuff as The Misfits. It wasn’t a cover band, but we pretty much ripped off their songs and put in our own lyrics. We just thought they were the coolest people in the world. After that, I was playing in band after band. I was in a metal/hardcore band in Southern California for about four years and toured around with big names like Hatebreed. It was fun, and then I seriously hit a brick wall where I realized I don’t even like this music anymore.
NS: Do you still drum often?
MK: Yeah, I live with the drummer for Emory Quinn, so I still get to play with it a little bit. And during soundchecks occasionally. I just don’t like drumming as much as writing, playing guitar, being up front.
NS: Do you feel like you needed country music or was that something that kind of found you?
MK: I grew up in Ruidoso, New Mexico, and we went to church with this family that had a chuck wagon and dinner show out there called the Flying J Ranch. So about the same time I started playing drums I would be out there working for them and they had a stage show every night. They played Western music: Marty Robbins, The Sons Of The Pioneers, all that. I didn’t like it at the time, but it grew on me to where when I was off in my punk/hardcore phase, I was listening to country to remind myself of home. I just fell in love with the lyrics and the sound of country music. Back in the day, country artists wrote such smart songs. I got to the point where I wanted to be creative and write those kinds of witty, clever songs; drums started to seem kind of mindless to me.
NS: Talk about your time in Lubbock. Is that where you found the guitar?
MK: I was in California and one of my friends from Ruidoso called to tell me he was going to South Plains College to study music and that he had a lot of free studio time. So me and another guy who quit the metal band I was in, we went and got a place in Levelland and started playing music. I ended up working as a janitor at Levelland High for like eight months while I recorded and played guitar at night.
NS: I have to ask: will you be playing the actual song, “Lubbock,” on Friday night?
MK: Yes. “Lubbock” is one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written. I wrote it a long time ago and I still enjoy playing it to this day. It’s been very good to me—I’ve got a video for that song and it’s gotten like 33,000 hits on YouTube, which may not sound like a whole bunch, but still [It’s gotten 36,087 hits, and yes, that is a lot]. But you know, that song is me. I was completely honest in that song, I didn’t have to conjure up any emotions because they were already there.
NS: That song articulates the feeling of being in Lubbock so well.
MK: Lubbock is a lonely town, man. There’s a lot of fun to be had, Tech is great, but it’s a lonely place to be. There’s something in the air there that’s kind of dark, you know. West Texas is crazy for me—I think that Terry Allen and Joe Ely really captured it incredibly well in their music. I think we achieved something similar with that song too.
NS: In January, you released the video for “Two Kegs In The Swimming Pool,” talk about how you guys filmed that.
MK: The guy who directed the “Lubbock” video in 2007, Austin Tolin, was around and I got some other friends who were photographers or videographers together. “Two Kegs” was never going to be a single or anything but we definitely wanted to make something cool with the video. Basically what happened was I convinced my roommates to move everything out of our house to throw this party with two kegs and a bunch of cameras [Laughs]. And there was never a real script or anything, there was maybe two or three specific shots that they wanted. We invited a whole bunch of our friends over and shot the video and drank from like two in the afternoon to the three in the morning.
NS: So there was actual drinking, actual partying?
MK: [Laughing] Yeah, man, I mean we couldn’t show certain beer labels and stuff like that but yeah everybody was actually having a great time. The director [Nathan Smith] would pop in and ask for a certain shot here and there, and I mean, there were people making out on camera that had just met that night. We had the option to go this big house or this studio but I wanted to be honest about it, you know—have it in my house with two kegs of Pabst Blue Ribbon. The part about the girls is real too. I do get good-looking girls, write that down [Laughs].
NS: I mean you grew up in Ruidoso, went to California, went to Lubbock, went to Tulsa, went to Austin. Now you’re on tour again with more music on the way—where is home to you now?
MK: It’s still Ruidoso. I love the state of Texas and I love how people do things here, but I’m a New Mexican, you know. I haven’t been in one place for longer than a week in a long time. It’s a really good question though, because I wonder that when I’m on the road.
NS: Like you know the answer is Ruidoso, but you had to think about it for a split second.
MK: Yeah, it’s like, where am I? Where do I belong? It’s a tough thing but then you remember where family is and where your heart will always be. Yeah…home is where the heart is, bro [Laughs].