Really Busy People: Mike Viola

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Mike Viola
Mike Viola
Mike Viola

I first found out about Mike Viola in 1997 when his old band, Candy Butchers, opened for They Might Be Giants at Irving Plaza. I was blown away not just by the songs, but the familiarity of his voice. While doing some research the following day, I uncovered that Viola was the voice (and primary instrumentalist and rumored co-writer) behind “That Thing You Do!”

In the nearly 20 years since that gig, Mike Viola has positioned himself as a highly-sought-after producer, composer and sideman. A lot of the music in “Get Him To The Greek” and “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” was written by him. Ryan Adams, Matt Nathanson, Rachael Yamagata, Mandy Moore, New Politics, Brett Dennen, Gin Wigmore and Andrew McMahon are among the artists who have recorded his songs over the past few years. Recent releases by Fall Out Boy, Jenny Lewis, and Butch Walker include his studio work.

2015 brings the release of “Stairway To Paradise,”  a 4-song release featuring Mike’s first new music in a few years, as put out on Ryan Adams’ PAX-AM label. As part of Ryan’s band, Mike will be playing at this year’s Governors Ball Music Festival.

As someone who transitioned from a Boston novelty as a teenager (who made an album with Kim Fowley), to a New York-based major label artist in his 20s, to a project-based writer and producer in his 30s and 40s – now based in Los Angeles – Mike certainly has a lot to teach about long-term survival as a musician. He kindly took time to answer some questions for Downtown about how he became a “go to” for struggling artists.

Downtown Magazine’s Darren Paltrowitz: When someone asks you what you do for a living, how do you usually answer?

Mike Viola: Musician.  That seems to cover it all.

You got your professional start as a teenager.  Is that something you’re proud of?  Or is there some regret in knowing that your work from so many years ago is out there?

M: It is what it is. Making rock music for a living isn’t something you decide.  It just happens and if you’re lucky enough to be pretty good, that’s all it really takes to get people to notice.  The trick is, having something to say, a purpose.  Now I get hired to find the purpose for younger artists.  There are so many young singers and performers who are hungry for this version of stardom they’ve been sold on TV by shows like “The Voice.” They are looking for record deals, and if they can sing and maybe play and they look great or have some quirky thing about them that feels like star quality, they eventually have to make a record. That’s usually the beginning of the end for these kids.  Like betting on a pony.  For me, and for people of my generation who just stumbled into it without any idea of what it would bring besides some kind of rebellion, or a way to get girls, we didn’t face that challenge. Our challenge was to get a gig, find people to play to, then we took it from there.   I can remember as a kid being in the studio was something we HAD to do to sell the music, but we always thought we were better live.   Which we were. Recordings exist of me when I’m really young and some of it is definitely not embarrassing.  ‘Cause although I sound like Joan Jett — my voice hadn’t changed yet — we were participating in this DIY movement that was driving The Minutemen, Black Flag, etc., without even knowing it.  We were trying to sound like Foreigner but ended up sounding like The Buzzcocks.

Photo: Courtesy of Mike Viola
Photo: Courtesy of Mike Viola

Are there any skills or parts of your trade that you think you were better at 10 or 20 years ago?

M: Not at all.  The real curse of time is that you end up finally honing your skills when it might be too late. This goes for everything, not just music.  I’ve learned that the REAL music that exists is an extension of lives lived. A residual of lives lived. It’s not the end game. Being alive and interacting with people is the end game. Everything else just gets buried, sold off or put in a museum. The trick is to survive while you’re alive, not when you’re dead.

Of all the projects you’ve worked on, do you have one or two that you are most proud of?

M: “Hang On Mike” and “Lurch.”

When was the moment in your career where you knew that you were a lifer in music?

M: Really the second I picked up the guitar.  The only question I’ve ever had is, “Can I keep on getting away with this?”  As long as I can, I will. That’s the true gift.

Do you have any regrets when it comes to your career?

M: Probably. I mean we all do right? Definitely! I’ve tried to learn from the missteps.

Looking back at the past 30-plus years in music, how much of the work you’ve done came as a result of hustling versus proper auditioning?

M: I’ve auditioned for one thing in my life. One.  It was for a commercial for sneakers.  Zips sneakers. My mom thought we could use the money and I was approached by a talent scout and auditioned and won the spot.   It’s on YouTube.  It’s hilarious. I don’t hustle. I wish I knew how.  My thing is, when I get a job working with an artist, I always try and do my best. That sounds righteous…or like… bullshit, but it’s not.  My advice to anybody is simply: try, really try.

Are there people you are still itching to work with?

M: New artists that are lost and in need of direction.

Is there a field that you are interested in outside of music that you’d ever consider doing?

M: No.

What are the apps and/or web-based tools that you rely most on for work?

M: Just e-mail. I use Logic and ProTools for songwriting from time to time, but mostly I write on guitar. All the recording happens on tape.

You’re known to be a big vinyl aficionado.  Are there any other old pieces of technology that you’re especially fond of?

M: I love my landline back home, and writing songs on hotel stationary.

When you’re not at work, what do you like to do in your free time?

M: Play with my kids. Usually in my driveway with the doors to my studio open wide, vinyl cranked up, usually something heavy so we can hear it over our playing.

Finally, Mike, any last words for the kids?

M: Question everything.