Mike Simmons, a young musician who has played gigs all over the country, has stories to tell - lots of them. He gave me an opportunity to pick his brain. We met at Mary Hotchkiss Park, on 4th and Strand in Santa Monica, where Mike talked about living out of his car, playing at a topless lounge, and struggling to make it in L.A.
Favorite recent movie: A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.
Favorite up-and-coming actors: Emile Hirsh, Shia LaBeouf.
Favorite song: “Covered in Rain” (on Mayer’s Any Given Thursday).
Fun local place to perform: The Knitting Factory in Hollywood.
Phrase that describes you: Still searching, but enjoying the ride.
You as an animal: Monkey. (“They’re adaptable, friendly, laid-back.”)
Metaphor for L.A.: Quicksand.
BACKGROUND & BECOMING A MUSICIAN:
MJ: Where were you born and raised?
MIKE: I was born in Flint, Michigan, which is outside of Detroit. When I was 5, my family moved to Des Moines, Iowa. Grew up there, went to high school, graduated there. After high school, I went down to Kansas City, to go to this community college – Johnson County Community College – and after three hours, I was like, “Can’t do it.” Dropped out. Cruised in my car for about six months. Just kind of lived in a bunch of different places. Attempted college again when I was 19. Failed out completely. And then I went to the East Coast, got into the music scene there. Sorry, that wasn’t exactly the question.
MJ: No, that’s a good summary. It opens up the doors to other questions. I’ll get back to those ideas. But first off, for my readers, what instruments do you play?
MIKE: Piano and guitar. I can do a bit of everything. I can play a very casual bass, or if you want a simple drum beat for an entire song, I can do that. I try to get my hands in everything, but as far as being fluent in instruments, it’d be piano and guitar.
MJ: Growing up, what type of music did you listen to?
MIKE: Part of what I listened to is what my parents listened to, and they were big fans of Crosby, Stills & Nash. When I think back on that, I’m like, whoa, you know? [Laughter.] My dad was into classic rock – the Doors, the Rolling Stones. My mom was into Motown, which I feel is still a part of me. It doesn’t really come through in my music yet, but I love the Motown sound. Someday I’d like to be able to do something with it. Other than that, I tried to listen to it all. For a while, there was the alternative rock, the ’90s and the grunge, and then I got into the singer-songwriters, like Dave Matthews, John Mayer and all that. And then you go through your rap phase. So I really just tried to listen to everything.
MJ: So, when did you start playing music?
MIKE: When I was about 17. But even before that, music was a huge thing for me. As a kid, I’d hear a song on the radio, love it, go buy the CD, and play that song a hundred times in a row. I got stuck on songs and music, and I don’t really come from a musical family. Des Moines isn’t really a musical town. Playing music professionally isn’t an option for most people, you know? But I loved music and surrounded myself with it. And I picked up a guitar when I was 12 – for about a week. I was doing sports at the time, too, and thought I was going to be an athlete. I put music on the back burner for a while. So it wasn’t until 17 or 18 that I started playing and thinking, “Damn, this is really what I wanna do.”
MJ: And when did you start writing songs?
MIKE: Oh, it was at the same time, when I was 17 or 18. It was all horrible stuff, you know, but I really got into writing. So it started building from there.
MJ: After college, you cruised around in your car?
MIKE: Yeah, after I dropped out, I thought, “What do I really wanna do?” At that point, when I was in and out of my car, music became big for me, because it had to. I’d cruise around with a guitar, and the only way you’d eat is by playing songs. That’s when I realized how bad I was and how good I wanted to be. So it started in the Midwest, the music thing, but depending on where you are, there’s not a huge opportunity. That’s why I cruised out to the East Coast. Met a lot of really good people who helped me get a career started out of it, you know.
MJ: Where were you on the East Coast, exactly?
MIKE: I started in Boston and went pretty much everywhere from Maine to Georgia. Boston and New York were my two spots. I had some friends at Berklee College of Music, and I’d always been infatuated with New York. Hung out there for a little bit, met some people, spent the majority of my time there, and then I also played in Philly, Jersey, Vermont, Connecticut.
MJ: Getting back to your “car” period, what made you decide to hit the road for six months?
MIKE: Well, I was kind of running away, and searching... The Midwest, it’s a simpler life, you know, and there are a lot of great things for people out there. But for me, I never really fit into that. Most of my friends came from wealthy families, and when they were 6 years old, they knew the plan: go to this high school, go to this college, and then end up working for their parents. That wasn’t ever my setup or my desire. So after I tried the college thing and it bombed, all I could think about was, “Well, I’ll just run away.” You know, real dramatic. I’d stop at a gas station with no gas, no money – but I did have my guitar. So I’d play a couple songs to earn gas money, a bite to eat.
MIKE: Yeah, yeah, yeah. If you stop at a gas station with a café, you know, it’s the same six people that come in every day. And I’d do that and say, “Can I just play two songs for these people and see if they give me anything?” And you end up spending five hours there, because they all start telling you stories. And they give you gas and whatever, and it’s fine. But when I started, my songs were bad, and I was horrible at guitar and singing.
MJ: But what you did is pretty daring.
MIKE: Yeah, and it’s funny, because that, to me – it just made sense. There was never a worry about it, you know. When I tell people, they say, “Whoa, that’s a pretty crazy thing.” But to me, it was the only thing that felt safe. So I’d play for gas or food, and I met some really good people that way, too. They could appreciate what was going on. And that’s when I realized, “Whoa, I should try to get better at this.”
PERFORMANCES & STYLE OF MUSIC:
MJ: I was going to ask you about an “epiphany” moment. It sounds like that was the moment.
MIKE: Yeah, that was probably it. Another big moment was the first show I ever did, this open-mic thing. It was in a coffee shop…in the Midwest. You don’t get more unforgiving than that.
MJ: How’d that go?
MIKE: Horribly. I wanted to do all original stuff. That was the thing from day one: I never wanted to play somebody else’s songs. I was just so eager to have my own thing, so I played three original songs that were something like 14 minutes each, with no structure or arrangement. And everyone hated the show. I wasn’t hearing, “Oh, my God, you’re meant to do this!” I was hearing, “God, get out of here.” By the end, the place was empty. And I remember at that point thinking, “I wanna do this forever.” Some people would get really bummed out after that kind of experience, but it was the best thing for me. And all I could think about was getting up there and doing it again. So, traveling around in the car was a big thing. And playing for the first time, experiencing what it’s like to be onstage – that was definitely the point of no return.
MJ: What did you learn from that first show?
MIKE: The thing I really got from that show – it’s a simple thing – is that every audience is different. You know, every state’s different; every person’s different. And it’s one thing to be able to play a song, but to be able to grab the audience or connect with different audiences, that’s something I’ve worked hard to do. I hope some day people will say I can put on an okay show. It’s important to me. And I think as far as live performances are concerned, there’s a lot more than music that goes into it.
MJ: What’s your strangest gig experience?
MIKE: I played at a topless lounge once, in New York. I can’t remember the name of the place. It was Pussycat, something obvious like that, but I was so excited to be playing, I had no clue what I was walking into. When I got there and saw these naked girls, I asked if I was in the right place. They were like, “Yeah, yeah, you’re upstairs.” There were a bunch of men and naked women up there. And I wondered, “Who booked this gig, thinking that these guys – here to see naked women – would wanna hear a 20-year-old kid sing songs about love?” The first thing I said into the mic was, “Believe me, I don’t know why I’m here, either.”
MJ: How would you describe your music?
MIKE: My music’s in the pop-rock genre. But it took me a while to figure out where I fit, because I play solo a lot. It’s often just me and my guitar. And you get categorized. A guy with a guitar gets tagged “singer-songwriter,” “folk music,” or whatever, but I try to write more upbeat stuff. For a while I was hearing “folk-rock,” but it’s not really that. And then I came to grips with the pop-rock genre. But I do like to think there’s something more to my music than a Gwen Stefani song, you know, or more than something that’s just for the club. I feel like “pop-rock singer-songwriter” is a good mix; that kind of goes with what I do.
MJ: Who do you sound like and/or emulate?
MIKE: Some people say I sound like Drake Bell, the actor and singer. I get that a lot with some of the more upbeat songs. I also get John Mayer, and that’s a huge compliment to me. I don’t hear that or see it, but if there’s somebody I aspire to sound like, it’s John Mayer. Or just to write the kind of music he does and have it mean so much to people. Some people say Tyler Hilton, another compliment – I think he’s got an amazing career. Teddy Geiger, who’s what, 19. And Gavin DeGraw. Mayer and DeGraw have been big influences of mine since early on.
MJ: I’ve listened to that CD you put together for me, and I like it a lot. The first three songs are pop and catchy, and the latter three songs are slower, more experimental. So, I get a sense of your style from them. Really good stuff.
MIKE: Thanks, I appreciate that.
MJ: The first one, “Pass You By,” your signature song, I guess – it’s radio-friendly and strangely familiar. I heard it on your MySpace page and then on the CD, and it was new to me, but at the same time, it felt like a song I’d heard before, like something DJs would play. It really stuck in my head.
MIKE: Thanks. Yeah, maybe you heard it on UCLA’s station. “Pass You By” has been on five or six different stations throughout the country, small stations, you know. But, yeah, people have been very friendly with that song. I’ve shot a video for it, too.
MJ: From the lyrics, I get this disgruntled attitude and this urgency to overcome. People are throwing daggers, and you’re trying to get through that, to get past it, because you know there’s something better for you out there.
MIKE: Yeah, I wrote that song with my good friend John Gilbertson, out in Boston. And I’d just booked the Viper Room, which may sound simple, but for me it was a big deal.
MJ: Sounds big to me.
MIKE: Wait, let me back up. I was at Iowa State, not doing so hot, and I went to see my guidance counselor. At first, I thought he was a cool enough guy. But then, when I told him college might not be my thing, he got almost angry, saying: “Everybody’s gotta go to college. Why would you not go to college? What would you do?” So I told him, “I feel like there’s this music thing happening.” And he said, “Where have you played here? Have you played the Maintenance Shop?” That’s the big place in Ames, Iowa. “If you haven’t even played the Maintenance Shop, and you wanna go to L.A. or New York, how are you gonna book a good venue out there?” He was one of many people who said it’d never happen. Fast-forward to Boston. I got a call one night, and they were like, “Come do the Viper Room.” So that’s how “Pass You By” was born. See, it’s a song that’s pop, like you said, but it’s still got a personal meaning for me.
MJ: That’s what gives the song its edge, I think. It feels personal; you can sense the personal story.
MIKE: I’m glad it comes through. That was a good point for me. It made me feel, I don’t know, substantial.
Bought my last postcard
Signed it with a stamp and my regards
MJ: The song “Stranger,” that sounds lighter.
MIKE: It is. In a nutshell, it’s about a girl from Georgia I hooked up with for one night. Plain and simple. It’s a very rudimentary pop song, and it captures a moment that meant something to me – I’ll remember that girl forever. And you know, in L.A., from my personal experience, people would rather hear you sing that song than something…deeper? I mean, it’s tough in L.A. to go onstage and play a love song. In New York, you can go onstage and play something kind of depressing or with a little more substance. Not everyone’s going to love it, but it’s a lot easier to do that there. And I guess that’s why I’m not 100 percent in love with the West Coast scene.
As for the rules, I tend to make them, break them
What's life if not shakin’?
MJ: Here’s a segue: “Leaving California.” It has a nice hook.
MIKE: That goes back to John Gilbertson. He wrote that hook – “Now I’m leaving California / Nice to know ya” – to sum up his experience here. [Laughter.] I met up with him in Nashville in 2006, and he played me this song he’d started. The first part was just your typical stuff, but then the chorus hit. I said, “John, that’s a great hook. You’ve gotta finish the song.” He goes, “Nah, I can’t do it.” So I rewrote the song, keeping the hook. I wrote his experiences into it; and then, when I got back here, the song took on a new significance for me.
Another Monday night, I don’t do what I should
I walk with stars in boulevards; they call it Hollywood
MJ: A few of these songs are about leaving, but for different reasons. “Pass You By,” “Leaving California,” and “Okay” has a lyric about it.
MIKE: Huh, you’re right. I do a lot of “leaving” songs, I guess. Yeah, the song “Okay,” that was another turning point for me. I was still floating around in the Midwest, and I don’t know how, but I got asked to do this showcase thing in Nashville. That was my first trip to Nashville and my first taste of a big show, a 3- or 4-day thing. I drove down there by myself, with no money, nothing. I did that show, and it was the first real moment when music wasn’t something I just wanted: I needed to do it. Afterwards, I went to this cheap hotel, couldn’t afford it, and ended up sleeping in my car in the parking lot. And that’s when I wrote the song. And to me, “Okay,” is kind of about leaving everything; it really symbolized a change. That was kind of the end of one person and the beginning of a new one.
Sleep well, Tennessee; I’ll be gone before you wake
I’m just learning to be…okay.
THE L.A. MUSIC SCENE
MJ: Let’s get back to your thoughts on the L.A. music scene. Having lived on both coasts, you probably have a good perspective.
MIKE: Um…I love L.A., and I love the people here, and I love playing here, but it’s definitely… I definitely prefer the East Coast. One reason: if you want to play a bunch of different places, it’s so easy to do there, because it takes you 45 minutes to drive through some states. With everything being so close together, you can get out to a lot more people. Another thing is that, for the most part, places are really accepting of new music, and people really want to hear it. In L.A., you’ve got so many great musicians, and you’ve got so many great venues and tours coming through, why waste time on the people that are up-and-coming, struggling, when you don’t have to?
The East Coast is different. For example, North Carolina’s a state that’s known for being really accepting of new music. You go there, and everybody knows somebody else, and it’s a really cool place to hang out with people. Basically, places on the East Coast give an unknown artist the chance to play a show and feel like he’s a known artist. There are some places where you can go and feel like you’ve really accomplished something for the night. For one night, you’re not “aspiring.”
The East Coast has got a more laid-back vibe, overall. New York has twice as many people as L.A., but it’s easier for a musician, I think. If people don’t like you there, they’re not going to pay any attention, but they’re also not going to be malicious about it. People know what they like out there, and they go to it. And there are lots of places in New York where – say I flew there tomorrow. There are places I could go with one day’s notice and still have 30, 40 people there, not because they want to see me specifically, but because they really want to hear something new. So, for that aspect, with where I am right now with music, I definitely do enjoy the East Coast a little better.
MJ: With so many bands out here, how does a person make it in L.A.?
MIKE: That’s a great question, you know, and I probably don’t have the right answer for it. Originality is a really big thing. Last summer, I played a show at the Joint – it was part of this pop festival – and there was a guy there dressed in a full white suit, playing all these instruments: a bass drum; a snare set up with a foot pedal and this high hat; an acoustic guitar with all these effects on it. You look at something like that and say, “That’s so original.” But unfortunately, it’s almost too original. Originality is a hard thing to do because if it’s too much, you get criticized; if it’s not enough, you get criticized. With so many bands out there today, you need to have a different sound but the same sound, too. A sound that fits on the radio perfectly, but that is different from everyone else on the radio.
I also think, unfortunately, being marketable is huge. Like I said, I get compared with 19-year-olds, kids with the right look for TV, magazines, whatever. I’ve heard a lot (from people who are rejecting me), “Oh, you’ve got a great sound, a great style – just not the right face.” So I think being marketable and having the right sound – that’s what it takes.
MJ: Do you have any other words of wisdom for people in your shoes, trying to do what you’re doing?
MIKE: I can definitely say, and I’ve said this before, if you want to do it, do it. When I picked up a guitar, I wasn’t great at it. The first note that came out of my mouth wasn’t good. Nobody looked at me and said, “Oh, he’s meant to do music.” I was lousy. Back in the day, my friend and I played this Dispatch song and recorded it on a radio. Just stuck a microphone in a tape deck and recorded it. We played it back, and it was the most disgusting thing I ever heard. If I would have based the rest of my life on that moment, I wouldn’t be here now. So, if you want to do it – and that goes for anything, not only music – just do it.
MJ: That’s good advice. I used to have a shirt that said the same thing.
Mike has recently signed on with Stanley Talent Management Inc. (based out of Las Vegas), and he will be cutting an EP soon, in Nashville.