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Posted August 24, 2014 by Jeff in Tunes
 
 

Wakey!Wakey!: Michael Grubbs on being joyous and authentic

Michael Grubbs Wakey!Wakey!
Michael Grubbs Wakey!Wakey!

Wakey!Wakey! frontman Michael Grubbs sang in the choir while he was a kid and that gospel tradition shows up on the band’s terrific new album, Salvation. Known for his role as “Grubbs” on the TV show One Tree Hill, Grubbs shows he’s more than just another actor-turned-musician with this solid effort. He recently phoned us from his Brooklyn home where he was nursing his puppy who had just been neutered. “I’m feeding him a bone and in full-on doggy doctor mode,” he joked.

Talk a little about the approach on the new album. Did you set out to emphasize your gospel background?
After touring for four years and playing to people who were super depressed or maybe reliving sad moments from their lives, I knew that one thing was that was important was to do something where people could have fun. That didn’t mean losing artistic integrity. Joyous moments can be really intense as well. It’s about finding those moments and throwing a big awesome party.

Do the songs have religious undertones?
Not really. I was raised in a very religious household. I grew up immersed in that world. I have so much respect for it and I’m glad I came from there. It gave me a great basis as a human being to strive to be a good person. To me, also, another part of growing up was finding my own understanding of that world and culture. It’s led to a much broader definition to things that people think of as Christian ideals. Salvation is much broader than what the classic definition. I don’t want to sound disrespectful. There might be a religious undertone but it’s not what people expect.

Did you hire a string section?
We did. We had a string quartet from Boston. We were trying to figure out how to incorporate them and producer Fab Dupont has a great studio called FLUX on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It’s a great place. He has this one party every year that’s a legendary throw down and people come from all over. It’s like a music nerd conference. He had a string quartet coming to play something for that. We had this huge party and then the next morning, we all got up at 7am before they went back to Boston and did a long session in the studio and got great real string sounds. The strings are important to our first album and I don’t want to abandon that. I feel like I have that responsibility to my fan base, especially if they’re going to pay for this album.

The opening track, “All It Takes Is a Little Love,” sounds like it features a choir. Is that the case?
Yeah. There is a choir. That track I wrote with Tim Myers. He has a studio in his house. I drove out to his house and we wrote the song. His house is a further out in Central LA so we didn’t have access to a lot of people. His wife was there walking around with their baby. She, he and I and she sang that part 15 times so it sounded like a choir. We added more people down the line. I’ll always have that memory of [the three of us] looking back take after take at their beautiful child with these huge big blue eyes. I thought he was going to cry and ruin a take but he never did it.

“Stop the World” could be a ‘80s song. What were you going for sonically?
There are a lot of ’80s-type songs on this album. That’s just what I think sounds cool. Maybe because I’m a child of the ‘80s. Really famous huge producers like Dr. Luke and Max Martin have said that ‘80s songs are some of the best-written songs. I completely agree. For me, songwriting is about architecture and I love the way the songs are built. Maybe I was celebrating that time or a part of my childhood. When I walk around Brooklyn, those are the songs I hear. It’s my choice as an artist to make something I think sounds really cool.

Those songs by Pet Shop Boys and Depeche Mode are great songs.
They’re amazing songs. Now, I think there’s a similar crisis in music production. You have the ability to create anything in the studio. You don’t have to have access to a rare synthesizer to make a recording; you can literally buy a plug-in and create it. You can make anything on your own. Because of that, I think music is lacking a sense of authenticity. That’s why I was so lucky to have Fab as a producer. You walk into his studio and all of those synths are there. It comes from an organic and natural place. We wanted to make something authentic. I think that’s what people want now.

We spent a lot of time making these songs into things that we hope will last for more than a moment.

You started playing music at age 5. What was that like?
Music was literally a language in my household. My parents were musicians. My sister started playing piano. The piano was the centerpiece. People have a playroom in their house for the kids. We had a piano room. My parents were music ministers at various different churches and there would be some new piano or organ that they had to carry to church or wherever they were doing stuff. There were all these different interesting synthesizers and electric pianos. That was the way we communicated. My parents never touched a drop of alcohol. Some families like to go out and get drunk together. We would sing something in four-part harmony and, as nerdy and weird as it is, it worked for us.

You also toured with a couple of musicals. Talk about that experience.
When I went off to college, I wanted to study theater. I wasn’t really responsible enough to do anything outside of the arts. I was never going to be good at holding down a day job. Theater was the thing I could have for myself. For me, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams talked about thing that were taboo. I wanted to be an actor. My mom told me that they would help me pay for college unless I studied music in some way or shape or form. Instead of doing the Arthur Miller plays and stuff I thought to be cool, I was doing Camelot and Brigadoon and classical touring musicals. I learned how to be in front of audiences. It was so key to my development but it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing at the time. It was super fun. I got to travel all over the States, which was mind blowing.

Did you form the band in college?
In college, I was focused on piano and on theater. It was a few years after I got to New York that I started my first band. There wasn’t much music in my household that wasn’t religious. When I got to college and was exposed to all this music, I went through a learning curve. When I was in New York, I was discovering new genres that I didn’t know existed.

Did you gravitate toward anti-folk?
That was reactionary to the way I was raised. When I moved to New York I had the chance to reinvent myself and find who I wanted to be and how I wanted to live my life. A lot of it was trying to find where the music scene was. There weren’t a plethora of websites. I was reading the Village Voice and trying to figure out where to go see music. I found this place called the Sidewalk Café. There were no rules. I remember seeing Regina Spektor just get up and sing a song while she played one line on a piano and beat on a chair with a drumstick. I thought, “Wow. You can do whatever you want.” That was a formative part of my career.

One Tree Hill had a long run and you were involved with part of that run. Do you miss the show?
The life experience of being on the show was so incredible. It’s something I look back on so fondly. When I got on that show, I had been a bartender in New York for 10 years. I went on one vacation during that time. I had been working so hard and spinning my wheels. I was having fun and loved my life, but it was hard. Once they put on a first-class flight and then two months later I was getting chased down the street by fans screaming, “You’re the piano guy! You’re the piano guy!” It was so exciting and so much fun. The other great thing besides the international fan base is that I got some great friends. They’re so sweet and so supportive. They come to the shows and tweet nice things about me. When they come to New York or LA, it’s a great party. We all have these extraordinary life experiences so when we come together and tell stories, it gets pretty good.

Do you plan to do more acting or are you just dedicated to the band?
I’m 100 percent devoted to the band. The One Tree Hill thing was such a fluke. Someone saw me playing piano in the bar. It’s not something I could recreate. If an opportunity came around that was good for the music, then I would consider it. My first love is writing songs and being a musician. That’s what I was built for.

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Jeff

 
Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at jeff@whopperjaw.net.