[PHW Interview] Wakey!Wakey!

Mike Grubbs, lead singer/songwriter of NYC’s Wakey!Wakey!, is a busy guy these days. His band is gearing up for the release of their long awaited full length debut, Almost Everything I Wish I’d Said The Last Time I Saw You, through Family Records. With radio ready tunes like the (almost) title track, “22”, and “Got It All Wrong”, the album brings Grubbs’ ambitious brand of orchestral pop music to whole new level. Over the past few years Wakey!Wakey! has built a reputation for putting on transcendent live shows. To capture the grand vision behind his songs on stage Grubbs usually performs with over ten musicians - lots of strings, horns, and, of course, Grubbs on piano. The band will be headlining Mercury Lounge on February 20 to celebrate the release of the new album. Tickets are still available as of right now, but with the building hype, that might change very soon. In addition, Grubbs has enjoyed a recurring role as a bartender (named Grubbs) on the popular teen drama One Tree Hill.

I caught up with Grubbs via email last week to get the scoop on all his recent endeavors. Almost Everything I Wish I’d Said The Last Time I Saw You is available now digitally wherever you may prefer to not steal your music from these days, and physically just about anywhere you might still see CDs for sale in 2010. It's one of my favorite albums released so far this year and is well worth the price of admission.

What was the difference between the recording process of Almost Everything...and your past works, like last year’s War Sweater EP or the Covers Record?

All of the songs we had previously recorded came in already completely orchestrated. A lot of the songs for Almost Everything were finished in the studio. I like the freedom of creating in the studio environment. It gives you much more control to craft the sound, and be more experimental.

The new album seems to get away, somewhat, from the piano-dominant sound of what I've come to associate with W!W!. Was this a conscious effort going in to the studio, or a result of playing/recording with a fixed bunch of musicians in a collaborative environment for so long now?

I've always been a pianist, but never really been into piano pop. I have respect for the classics, but modern piano pop very rarely captures my attention for long. There are exceptions to this rule, but overall I prefer things that are a bit more experimental. I think this album really represents me coming into my own sound. In my opinion, Pop music and Indie music are both really messed up right now. Pop has become so washed out and stripped down for mass consumption it has no identity whatsoever. Indie is polarizing in the opposite direction, becoming a less and less approachable toy for the Intelligencia. Once again, this is of course a generalization, but I unfortunately find it true more and more often. I don't see any shame
in Pop music having an identity, and I certainly see no shame in Indie music having hooks. Can't we all just get along? It's almost like, Pop music is that kid that was always way too good looking. He therefore never bothered getting an identity, so he'll never be truly happy or interesting. Indie was the ugly kid, that has the great heart and a refreshing perspective that we could all learn a lot from. Unfortunately he has a chip on his shoulder so big, no one will ever know. In my mind, music should just be music. I don't want to make an album for some small portion of society, and I don't want to dumb myself down for mass consumption. I just want to be me. For years Major labels have called us too weird and a gamble, and Indies have called us less than inventive. Probably the best day of my life was when I decided to stop listening, and just write what I wanted. I hope that comes through on this album.

Your career has taken an interesting route over the past few years….you’ve been with Family Records for a while now and put out a couple of live recordings, but last summer’s War Sweater EP was the first time you released something recorded in a studio, right? Why did that take so long?

Honestly, I think it took us this long to get into a studio because logistically that’s just not how my brain works. I'm good at the initial creation of the art, but to b ring it from brain to store
shelves is just not my forte. That's why I'm lucky to have Wesley Verhoeve and the team at Family Records to help me finally pull it off. It feels great to have it done.

What is a war sweater, by the way? What’s the idea behind that song?

It's like a Wonderwall, but less catchy... haha. In all seriousness I'm hesitant to say what a war sweater is to me, because I like how it's kind of taken on a life of it's own. I will say that the phrase was born of an inside joke between myself and some close friends well over a decade ago, and it has to do with one's way of defining one's self. I've known those guys for a really long time and we have so many inside jokes that we almost speak our own language sometimes. When I
wrote it I actually thought it was a common term, but I'm kind of glad that it's not, now. That's a pretty heavy song for me.

I’ve seen your live show in a variety of settings - from solo piano shows to shows with full string and horn sections where the stage can’t hold all the musicians….describe the process of taking a song from its infancy to a full band version…do you arrange all the parts?

-Songs generally come to me pretty much done. They arrange themselves pretty quickly. The most exciting part of these players for me, has been having a band that I really trust, and can communicate those parts to. It's always a give and take of course. I chose my band members because they're great players, and sometimes I like their ideas, better. I guess the best thing about the band is, I'm really shy with new songs, and I need a really positive environment to bring them to, or I'll just trash them and never bring them back.

I’ve always been impressed with how much time and energy it must take to put together your live shows - there always seems to be a concerted effort to make each one special and unique…how much effort is put into a typical “big” Wakey!Wakey! show? Specifically, the organizing of musicians, rehearsals, setlists, etc.?

It's always amazing how they come together. The week of the show we start saying, "wouldn't it be cool if...", and then just try to make those things happen, often making ourselves really crazy i the process. Some of my early shows were really loose, because it was just impossible to get 17 people together to rehearse. That was most clear to me when I saw Grizzly Bear play with the Brooklyn Philharmonic (Tickets were my birthday present from my friends and family last
year, and my friend date was the hot girl that introduced me to Mark from One Tree Hill, haha). I really realized how much I was half-assing a lot of it. Eventually I learned that I needed to focus on the core of the band, then slowly branch out. I think that's where we are now. The central 6 band members are super tight, so we can just add anything. I really want a children's choir next. My manager is gonna flip when he reads this... haha.

How did "War Sweater" get picked up by the One Tree Hill people [the song was featured prominently in last year‘s season finale]? Was it someone from your label shopping your music around, or someone from the network hearing it and liking it, or something else entirely?

I was hanging out at Bar 4 actually, and there was a really hot girl there I wanted to talk to, so I got up and did some songs to break the ice. Turns out she's a writer for One Tree Hill, and close friends with Mark Schwahn (the show's creator). She brought Mark out a few weeks later, and texted me to come out. He waited 3 hours, which is ridiculous, but I was on a date and had no notice that he'd be there waiting. That was the beginning of me being very impressed by him.
He's the creator of this huge teen drama, and by all rights should be this total LA douchebag, but it turns out he's this amazing, hard working, down to earth guy. No other person in his position would have waited like that. So anyway, he decided to use some songs on the show, then we just became friends, and he offered me the role. We're co-releasing the album with his label (Timber St), and being on a hit prime time show doesn't hurt. As far as the girl I wanted to talk to, she turned out to be engaged to an awesome guy, and we're all friends to this day.

I think the first thing that jumps out to people who hear your music is your voice. It’s a striking instrument, but you show tremendous control over it…how much formal training have you had? Do you have to be careful not to strain your vocal chords?

Well, my parents were singers, so I had training pretty much from birth. In college I sang a bit of Opera, and studied with a ton of great people, including Michael Forest from the Met Opera. I guess all of that kind of goes out the window when the band kicks in and you're at a sweaty rock show. I'm sure there are fundamental technique issues that were ingrained in me that I entirely forget that I do, but overall I try to just sing from the heart. I really think in the end, singing is all about confidence, and while I might lack that in certain areas of my life, musically I'm pretty sure of myself.

The “Covers Album” must have been a fun project? I thought you did a nice job coming up with a real variety of songs that showed off your different talents and influences….how did you go about choosing the songs that you’d record?

They were all different. "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" really kicked it off. Andrew Hoepfner from Creaky Boards, Darwin Deez, and Shilpa Ray and the Happy Hookers (What a bunch of awesome projects) first brought up the cover and we collaborated on it for a weekly party in NY called Cross Pollination. It got me thinking about all of these songs with great stories that were way overlooked. Maybe because the great dance beat, or the persona that presented them was so big that you just got all caught up in that and missed the great songwriting. (That song, by the way is by a guy named Robert Hazard. He passed away recently, and one of his friends caught me playing in Philly. He came up with tears in his eyes, and told me Mr Hazard would have loved it, and that's the way he intended it to sound. It was very touching.)

Where did the Wakey!Wakey! name come from?

Our first song cycle was the inspiration for it. I always wanted to write political songs, because my convictions are rather strong in that department, and it's on my mind a lot. The problem was, whenever I sat down to execute political songs, they came out sounding so trite, that I'd never finish them. I've always been good at love songs, though, so I wrote an album of love songs to the Government. Which in the political climate at the time came out as a break up album. I named the band Wakey!Wakey! as a hint that there was more to it. Our latest album is entirely nonpolitical, but the name was too widely known to change. I guess it's catchy, though.

Stream :: Various Songs from Almost Everything

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