The Everlasting Mike Jacoby and His Big 5-0: An Exclusive Interview
Self-produced, self-recorded, self-promoted, self-managed. Armed with an undying love for rock ‘n‘ roll music and a multi-faceted musical talent that stems from an appreciation and propagation of quality songwriting. Mike Jacoby is a Long Beach-based singer-songwriter who’s been performing on the scene for years – as a founding member of the wowtastic local alt-country band Haymaker and now out on his own. His is a story of persistence and performing music for music’s sake.
Jacoby is firstly a songwriter, his aim to constantly improve upon his past artistic successes. With a love for music born in classic rock ‘n‘ roll, his writing today leans toward the Americana and alt-country veins. Jacoby’s immense guitar talent makes for an ideal platform from which to compose songs in a bit of a traditional singer-songwriter method. His music, particularly the music of his first solo CD The Big 5-0, reflects a stellar knowledge of and appreciation for his own and society’s collective music history, while simultaneously issuing forth a completely new perspective. Jacoby’s high-quality songs are listener-relatable, with thoughtful lyrics, ear-friendly melodies and sonic production. Subject-wise, most are derived from personal experience and inspiration, while a few are more narratively based and showcase Jacoby’s talent in composing the story-song.
He’s been around and he’s still going places. In conversation with Mike Jacoby, we learn more about his influences and favorite sounds, as well as his multi-dimensional home recording process.
Jude Warne: How did your solo work begin? How did you arrive at your aural aesthetic? I know you’ve been involved in the music world for a long time, but could you talk about the development of your sound?
Mike Jacoby: Basically, it began with finding a way to do home recording. I got Cakewalk Pro Audio on my computer, bought a pretty good preamp and mic, and it was just kind of seeing if I could replicate decent-sounding rock ‘n‘ roll in my own songs. My ideal recording template is that of Todd Snider. He records stuff with band, without band, and he plays mostly solo acoustic. There are a couple of his records that I really like the sound of, The Devil You Know and East Nashville Skyline. Great arrangements, very vibrant, not overproduced, not overly slick. I’m trying to aim toward this sound, nothing too pop-sounding; Americana, relatively raw sound and good material.
JW: Your love of rock and roll really comes through in your music. What are your major influences from music history? A little bit of your vocals, your singing style, reminds me of Mick Jagger a bit.
MJ: Yeah, that influence is one of those things I can never get away from. He’s such a great singer and a great personality – and I’ve always been a fan, his influence does seep through. Generally, the Stones are a big influence on me, Dylan’s a big influence, and many others. Style-wise, my voice is my voice, but I think that it’s versatile. I’m mostly interested in great songwriting. Todd Snider I love, The Drive-By Truckers, Hayes Carll, Lucinda Williams – all of these are great songwriters.
JW: I would say you do have a bit of an alt-country sound going on as well.
MJ: Yes. Alternative in general I like, alternative rock. I love the latest Vampire Weekend record and Deerhunter. I try to listen to lots of different things. But I always come back to the alt-country and Americana stuff.
JW: What is your writing process like? The songs on this album, The Big 5-0, come across as quality songs, perhaps classics; in an ideal world, songs that sound radio-friendly. Perhaps the idea of “the radio” isn’t even that relevant anymore. Your conception of what goes into a reliable song comes across in your work – especially “Sounds Good to Me,” “Note to Self” and “It Ought to be a Law.” I could hear these songs being played in a variety of settings, of venues.
MJ: That’s funny, because when I hear people talk about their favorite songs on the album, they always mention different ones. As far as my writing process goes, generally I’ll just start playing on the guitar, improvising and messing around, and sometimes I’ll hear something that sounds like a song. Many times something will evolve from that, I’ll be singing along over some riffs. Hopefully I’ll get a title, some lyrical inspiration. I’m usually fast with structure, determining the structure of a song. Coming up with a concept, knowing what the song will be about and developing lyrics. I’ll usually have a melody in place and know where it’s going. It’s a matter of asking myself, “Okay, what is the song about?” and filling that answer in. The album opener, “Try,” literally took ten minutes to write. I didn’t change a word or note of it, it just came right out that way. That was pretty magical. “Stop the Gas” was a riff and title I’d had for a long time; I generally have a pretty good memory of song ideas if they’re strong enough. I find that most songwriters go about it basically in the same way. Some songs can personal, some can be more character-driven – I usually like songs that involve both. “Lie in Bed” does that, I was going through a divorce at the time so it touches on that – but in a way it’s not ultimately about me. “Resume Speed, Texas” has nothing to do with me, it’s just a funny story.
JW: Were some of these songs covered by your band, Haymaker? Are you still with them?
MJ: As of now, we’re on an extended hiatus. There are a couple of songs on The Big 5-0 that are also on the latest Haymaker record. I prefer the Big 5-0 versions, but they’re like different animals in a way. I’m closer to those on The Big 5-0 because I did it all, I played all of the instruments, did all the mixing, programmed the drum track. I’m proud of it all.
JW: Wow, so even the mandolin, banjo?
MJ: Yeah, I play the mandolin, banjo, there’s some piano on there.
JW: How have your musical or artistic goals evolved over your career? Are they similar now to how they were when you started out, or have they changed a lot?
MJ: My career? (Laughs) That’s funny. Well, I suppose mainly it’s been about trying to be a better songwriter. Working on the craft while keeping the inspiration and spark. I’m only able to create sounds that I like, that are true to me anyway. When you’re writing for an alternative rock band, it’s very different from writing for the Americana genre. I think that all of my influences have kind of evolved into this thing I’m doing now. I hope I’m not copping anyone, I do hope that the sound is uniquely mine. I’m very close to it so it’s hard to say.
JW: So you have a home studio you said?
MJ: Yeah, well I have Cakewalk Pro on my computer, with my preamp and mic. I’m working on my next album now, done in this same method, which will be out by the end of summer. It’s almost done – I think The Big 5-0’s really good, but I think this one’s a hundred times better.
JW: Do you have a title on the new record yet?
MJ: NorthSouthEastWest. It has to do with the fact that I’m from the northeast but I now live in the Southwest, recording music that has to do with the South. An all-points sort of thing is the idea. The template is rather like this one, a do-it-yourself, relatively well-recorded album that still sounds raw. Will Kimbrough, Snider’s producer, is an artist in his own right, and I love his aesthetic.
JW: Did you have a timeline set up for these last two records, or were they more leisurely put together?
MJ: I wish I had a deadline. It takes a little while because I have other things that I’m doing. Working forty hours a week at a non-music-related job takes up a lot of my time, but I try to work on music every day if I can. That’s the most frustrating thing, I wish I could devote more time to it. The Big 5-0 took a couple of years, but this one went faster, even though at this point I feel it’s already taken too long. I love that Duke Ellington quote, “I don’t need time, I need a deadline.” You can tinker with things forever, but at some point you just have to get it out and not treat it so preciously. It’s only rock ’n’ roll after all. Part of what took long on this last album was selecting the fitting and interrelated ten songs; I like having ten songs on an album. It’s clean; part of what I don’t like about CDs is that people cram so much material onto them. After ten songs, I feel that the listener is pretty “out.” Ten songs on a ten-dollar album, a dollar a song, if you want to look at it that way.
JW: Where did you get the idea for the album title, The Big 5-0, is it related to an age of some sort?
MJ: Yes, I released it when I had just turned fifty. In this… goofy world the title is probably a detriment. An old guy still making records, most people are scared of that I suppose. But I think music is ageless.
JW: What are the benefits of working alone versus in a band, like you do in your band Haymaker?
MJ: Well working alone, I can trust my own musical interests. In a band you have to compromise, to reach a consensus. In Haymaker, it’s me and John Surge, and it’s occasionally difficult if you don’t see eye to eye on certain things. With myself, it’s easier to do things, and to only have myself to praise or blame. Also, I always show up on time. And in playing live, I prefer the freedom of my acoustic guitar and singing. But being in a band is very exciting as well.
JW: How does your live performing differ from your album work?
MJ: That’s an interesting question. When I play live, I play a lot of covers, and a lot of my songs. The covers are all songs that I like and that are part of my musical aesthetic anyway, and the crowds always seem to like the combination and flow of my original songs and covers. When I play live, depending on the venue, sometimes I’ll get three hours to play. I’ve done shows solely of my own originals as well. When I do shows with combinations of covers and originals, there’s such freedom in the choice of songs – I could do a Buddy Holly song, a Leonard Cohen song, a Clash song, a couple of mine as well. Then from there I could go into a Replacements song, an Elvis Costello song, a Beatles song, a Stones song, a Steve Earle song, a Lucinda Williams song, a Townes Van Zandt song, then three more of mine. I really love to do that kind of thing, and the audiences seem to love it too – there are so many great songs out there.
JW: So where do you usually play in Long Beach? Where are the best Americana venues?
MJ: The Honky Tonk Hacienda downtown, The Grand Old Echo in LA, kind of like an Americana hub, I’m trying to get booked there before the summer’s out – it’s such a great, well-run venue. My buddy David Serby puts on shows at the California Roots Union. So there are Americana outlets out here and I just try to do what I can do. It’s a building thing I think at this point, of a fan base and putting out good stuff. I think The Big 5-0 is great and this next record is even better. That’s the plan, anyway.
JW: How would you describe the local music scene in Long Beach, California, where you live? How does it fit with your own musical goals?
MJ: Well in Los Angeles in general, there is an Americana scene, which my band Haymaker was kind of on the fringe of, more or less. Our bass player David Serby, an artist in his own right, is a pretty big gun in that scene, there’s also an acoustic, singer-songwriter scene in LA of course. There’s one in Long Beach as well, which I’ve been getting more involved in, there’s a songwriter-in-the-round event here which I’ll do again. For me, it seems to be a manner of finding places to play – there seem to be more places to play for acoustic solo acts. Bars don’t generally have full bands anymore. When I play solo people seem to really like it and I’ve been building up a following on that. When the new record comes out, I’ll think about touring around that. I may go all out on it and get promotional help with it! The Big 5-0 has been download only, on CD Baby and Amazon.com. It is available everywhere, also iTunes.