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A Short Talk with Mikki James


Mikki James and band
My favorite kind of interview happens when an artist is really engaged with music -- not just his or her own, but the whole history of it -- and can relate his/her process somehow to the larger world. I like talking about the music that inspires people and how they use it to create new art. This is not one of those interviews. In fact, I think that Mikki James is the first person ever to tell me that he doesn't collect CDs and doesn't have influences. However, he did have a lot to say about the experience of being a working musician, trying to get albums out and continually having people go back on their promises. His newest record, Guess What, is a rock into pop excursion into anger management, reflecting several very frustrating years of getting screwed. If the lines "Guess what? Fuck you!" repeated over and over again have any kind of appeal to you, then influenced or no, Mikki James is your guy. And as an ex-roomate of one of The Strokes and a Lenny Kravitz discovery, he also knows, as one person close to him put it, "every celebrity in New York." Page Six move over. Here's our short talk with Mikki James.
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Splendid: So, "Put Your Hand on the Goose". Is that a euphemism for something?

Mikki James: Hmmm...it's mostly. I was just going to say it was to rhyme something, but it wasn't even that. I was just sitting with my acoustic and it was one of those things that came out of my mouth. I don't think "Goose" means anyone's name or anything. You know what? I'm going to be absolutely honest with you. It doesn't mean anything. I don't know why... I commend you on that being your first question because that's the only lyric on the record that I've ever written where... it's just one of those things where it felt right to say it that way. You know when you're writing a song, and you're just kind of saying mumbo jumbo to get the phrasing down. I think that's what I was saying. I knew what I wanted to say in the first verse. And I just started off... I sang it so many times that way...

Splendid: How about a little background on you? I know you've been in a whole bunch of bands, going back about ten years. Mostly as a bass player, right?

Mikki James: Yeah, mostly as a bass player.

Splendid: You started out with Thin Lizard Dawn?

Mikki James: Yeah, the New York history goes back to... I moved to New York from Connecticut in 1994 or 1995. I moved down to play with Thin Lizard Dawn, thinking that there was already a deal on the table, as so many people usually think, and there wasn't. So I worked for a while and then we got signed to RCA Records. We were with RCA for about six years. During that time, I was the bass player for Thin Lizard Dawn. We were a four-part harmony band, and that just, you know, cracked the whip, really made me learn how to sing. And in the meantime... we were all big four-trackers. This was mid-1990s, when four-track was the thing. Everyone was doing four-tracking. So I wanted to show the singer... the singer in the band was really the only songwriter. We had a couple of glimpses here or there of co-writing. So I had really no reason to write a record. I just started coming home from the bars at night, because I wasn't working and stuff, and basically started four-tracking these things I was doing, just for the heck of it. I'd start at four in the morning and go to ten and a song would be done. One of Dave Sardi's assistants -- you know the name Dave Sardi?

Splendid: No.

Mikki James: He produced the Jet record. He was working for Rick Rubin for a while. One of his assistants heard the four-tracks I did. I was still signed with RCA, but she asked if I could give it to her. She called me the next day, and I took a meeting with him (Dave Sardi) the day after. He put out that collection on a label called See Thru Broadcasting. That was Dave Sardi's label. That came out...unfortunately, at that time I hooked up with Lenny Kravitz's cousin. He was a Thin Lizard Dawn fan from way back. He kind of had an interest, wanted to manage us. But he was just a kid, so when he heard that I had put out my own record under the name Mike G. at the time, Mike G. Sugardaddy was the name of the record. He really started courting me. Lenny was giving him some money to find some artists to go on what was going to be Roxy Records, which was going to be Lenny's label. And at that point, we were getting toward the end with Thin Lizard Dawn, and we had made three records for RCA and only gotten one released. They wanted us to record our second record for the third time. It was a real bad time. I guess the combination of me thinking that this producer Dave Sardi likes me and Lenny Kravitz is willing to give me money. The band kind of faded out. I went to Detroit for four months and made this record for Lenny. Which I just called Mikki James Mikki James. This record never saw the light of day. We never got distribution for the record. We broke lease and I left the contract. But I have this really, really cool record that's never been out. I don't really know where it belongs. So you've got the Thin Lizard Dawn and you've got the Mike G. and you've got Mikki James, which I did for Lenny four years ago. So then, I toured with Leona Naess for a while, played bass with her. Then when the Mikki James one didn't come out and the Mike G. was already put to bed... Lenny Kravitz came up with the Mikki James name. James is my middle name, and then he just turned Michael into Mikki. Then the guy from See Thru Broadcasting tried to buy the Mikki James record from Roxy Records. That didn't work out so well. But he had a label and he had Red Eye Distribution. He had put out records before. He had this really cool record called When Pigs Fly. It's covers of celebrities doing other celebrities, like Don Ho doing Peter Gabriel. (See http://www.pigsflycd.com/mainpage.html) It's really weird.)

So, he gave me a little bit of money, and I came out with the Guess What record, which was kind of a ... it's a little bit of an angry thing, more than my other stuff. My previous records were more melodic, and this time I just had to let it out. It was therapy for me.

Splendid: Reflecting all these records that were not coming and the other stuff that was going on with you.

Mikki James: Yeah, and I was just at that time, I felt like I had wasted a big chunk of time on the Lenny Kravitz record. But now I'm over it. I know it wasn't a waste. At the time I was really feeling it, still thinking that I wanted to attack the world and all that, so I wrote all this stuff. Like "Guess what! / Fuck you." "Fire me" on that record is all about them, and "Can't Get Loose". "It's a long, long noose and I can't get loose / Where'd you go, where'd you go, because I don't believe anything you're telling me." Basically, the whole record is about that. It's like ten different ways to say "Screw off." But I wrote it quick and recorded it quick. We recorded that in ten days from not too, too much. I love it. I'm happy with it. It's definitely a side of me. But it's cool because it's a lot of fun to play. When Mikki James plays live right now, we play Guess What front to back in order. We go one through ten, in order.

Splendid: Tell me about your band.

Mikki James: I have a guy called Ivan Evangelista. He is one of the guitar players. He also co-produced the record with me. I have another guitar player named Matt Hagman. He's more the technical, perfect studio guy. And Ivan is kind of this Croatian... I could explain it to you this way. He plays a Les Paul through a Marshall, and Matt, the more proficient guy, plays a Strat through a (this portion of the tape was inaudible) or something. They're perfect because they're on either side of me. I'm in the middle playing bass, so I play bass and sing and Matt and Ivan on either side of me sing all the harmonies. And then I've got this terrific drummer named John Webber.

Splendid: How did you find these people? Did you know them for a while?

Mikki James: I knew Matt. I kind of put the band together when the whole Lenny Kravitz thing was going on, because I had money. I was afforded the luxury of making a couple of phone calls and getting the best guys in town, because I paid them. I paid them to rehearse. I paid them to play shows. I paid them every time I wanted to go into the studio. They actually played a lot on the record before this one. They played a lot on the Lenny record and so that's kind of how I know them. I've known them for five years. We all get along fabulously. We just played a show at the Delancy Lounge a little while ago. We hadn't played in a while and I was waiting for the record to come out. In New York, you play smaller clubs to get signed. I didn't really see the need to do it because I was signed. I kind of wanted to wait for something to come out.

Splendid: Are you looking to get signed now, or are you all done with that label thing?

Mikki James: Well, I'm with Kevin right now on this record, and I'm happy. He's a small label. He's put out eleven records, but I really, really respect the distribution he's got. He's got Tower and Virgin. He's got me on the radio. I think I'm #9 in Georgia. So what I need to do right now is set my tour up. I think I've got... Clermont's really cool. Nelson from Clermont actually did the press or radio or something for Thin Lizard Dawn, so I remembered him and he remembered me. It was kind of funny how, years later, our paths crossed. Long story short, to answer your question, I'm happy with Kevin. I like him a lot. He's a good friend. He cares. So I'm on this label for a while, for this one record, which I recorded over a year ago and I still love it. I'm not as pissed as I was. It's not an absolutely down record. There's a little bit of hope and quirkiness in it, which I can't help but doing. It's not just violent. There's a way out.

Splendid: Are there any other angry records that you like by other bands?

Mikki James: Ahhm... it's funny. I'm the only guy... I live in the East Village on Avenue A in New York City. I haven't really got a record collection. I never really had CDs. It's kind of funny sometimes, because when I got press on Mike G., it was like, he sounds like Beck meets Money Mark, and all these names that I knew and they were all compliments, like a lot of Jonathan Richman and T. Rex and stuff like that, but I never really listened to anything except bands of friends of mind. If I get something from a friend, I'll kind of get into it for a while. I think my friends are more my influences than established bands. I know rock history enough, classic rock like Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. I don't really have references. I mean, I've got a couple. I like Ween, of course. I like Weezer. I love the Flaming Lips. I don't know why I attempted to make a punk rock record. I think I attempted to make a punk record, but I'm so darn poppy that it came out like a pop punk record. But I think there's an element of authenticity to it because I don't have any influences. I don't really think it sounds like any particular thing.

Splendid: Is "Guess What" the radio single?

Mikki James: "Guess What" is the radio single. We did an edit.

Splendid: Really?

Mikki James: We went to the studio and had another guy mix the record. I went back in when we decided we were going to use that one, and I took a Moog we found a white noise button, something that would just be like if your TV was generating white noise, and we took out the "FU" and kept the "CK" sound, one of my versions with all the vocals saying it. SO the end version is like "Guess what? --ck you."

Splendid: And that does it for the FCC?

Mikki James: It's getting played. We had 72 adds for a month. Which is respectable. I'm on a couple of triple A stations. I'm actually charting, so we're doing it. You have the edited version and you have the clean version. I think the college stations actually can play the dirty version. The commercial stations are playing it, so yeah, it's like... I don't want to compromise. I felt like I was compromising enough by editing the song. But it's kind of like... to my band and Kevin, that's the catchiest song that will grab people first. We didn't want to not use it because of any rules. But it's funny, because you can tell what it says.

Splendid: You always can.

Mikki James: But I didn't leave it blank or put a beep in it.

Splendid: I hear you know every celebrity in New York City.

Mikki James: Yeah... I lived with Nick from The Strokes for two years. (He says something off the mic) Right when they were making that first record. I got to know some people. The guy I was just talking to was actually the old drum tech for the Strokes. I produced a song for Albert's solo record, which is amazing. I did one of his tracks. I used to date Albert's fiancée's sister for a year. And I was in a band with Ryan, The Strokes' manager, called The Shetland Ponies. The artwork for the record that you have was just kind of something... you can definitely mention this if you want to. It was drawn by Fabrizio, the drummer of The Strokes. He drew the front cover, and Nick, my roommate, took the inside photo. So it's all kind of Strokes artwork. Album art by The Strokes. And so then, I got to knew Drew. I also own a nightclub in New York. It's a pretty hot celebrity spot. Being the owner and the manager, I go in there every night. I hang out with Drew a lot. Jimmy Fallon I'm pretty close to.

Splendid: What's the name of the club?

Mikki James: Movida. It's kind of like a rock 'n' roll bottle bar, if you can imagine that. It's a higher end rock 'n' roll club. For example, my party is on Tuesday. We did that last night. But the week before, we had Drew Barrymore DJing for the party, and the week before that, we had Sean Lennon.

Splendid: What kind of music does Drew Barrymore like?

Mikki James: Uhmmm... She... Uh... It was her and Nat, my roommate. She kind of just went up there and told them what to play. She knew that we wanted her there because... she agreed to help us out. It was a really big night. But she listens to... I'm trying to think of what they were playing. She was kind of pushing for the dancy Motown. The Supremes. "Set me free why don't you babe?" (He sings this) Diana Ross. That's where she was going with it. And then Nat will play Weezer. It was a real cool time. Tueday night at Movida.

Splendid: What are you up to music wise now?

Mikki James: I'm about to produce... I was in a band that I recently just left. A band called Johnny Lives.

Splendid: I was going to ask you about that.

Mikki James: Have you heard of it?

Splendid: When I was getting ready for the interview, I did a search of your name and that was one of the things that came up. It was in the NME and stuff like that.

Mikki James: Johnny Lives is a three-piece band with the same drummer as Mikki James. Johnny Lives opened up for Mikki James a couple of times in New York when I was doing the Lenny Kravitz thing. I met this kid and fell in love with his songwriting. I told him, "Listen, I can do both. I can play Mikki James and Johnny Lives." And I joined and then I really, really was into playing with my drummer, so I brought him in. We were a three piece. We were a power trio. It was just a phenomenal band. We were signed to a label, called Long Live Crime records. We played for three years. We toured in London and got real popular. We just made a record in New York for Long Live Crime that I produced. I produce as much as I can. Then we hooked up with this management company that was just not doing the right thing. I wasn't feeling it. I think I was kind of over it anyway, because my record was coming out and I was looking for a way to get back on track with my thing. So I left the band about three weeks ago. I'm no longer in Johnny Lives. I'm full-time with Mikki James.

-- Jennifer Kelly

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