by Kiddo Shakespeare
With a diverse musical career spanning over twenty years, singer, songwriter, Mike O’Donnell realized early in life that music was his escape, and words, his weapons. Mikey and The Skinny Millionaires prepare for their upcoming show in his hometown of Newport, RI, with legendary punk rockers, The Dwarves. Mr. Mike is no stranger to punk rock, and reflects on his earliest influences and inspiration that came from both great musicians, and life’s metaphorical kicks to the gutter. An old soul in a new world, it was a natural progression from the garage to center stage, as Mike climbs his way to the top of the unfortunately underground world of original rock’n’roll. His experience and versatility land him, a week after The Dwarves show, at an all ages, picnic table, family event for Newport’s Nimfest at King’s Park on the water, where he plans to bring his one year old daughter, Hazel May.
Mike’s music has come a long way since picking up his first beat up guitar to playing drums in his first band. Growing up with an older generation, he never really felt comfortable around anyone his age. By ten, he could be found at the Waterbrothers skate ramp on a daily basis hanging with adults, growing up too fast. Rarely hanging out with kids his age and their “juvenille bullshit,” Mikey channeled all of his frustrations into writing songs. Although solid on numerous instruments including guitar, drums, ukulele, and harmonica, Mr. Mike’s focus has always been on writing a good song.
Here is a recent interview I had with Mr. Mike…
KS: How would you categorize your music?
MM: I wouldn’t. For me, I like uncharted territory, I like feeling like I’m still learning, so… playing the same thing forever would not help me become better. It may make me easy to market, but in the end, great songs are what I’m after, and great songwriting. I like punk rock, rock n’ roll, blues, folk, pop, garage, soul, hardcore, and tons more…so I guess I’m trying to forge my own thing out of all of these influences. And I like being able to be versatile. For example, we’re (The Skinny Millionaires ) doing a show on June 19th with my old friends and touring mates The Dwarves, a legendary punk rock band. This show will be loud fast dirty rock n’ roll. And a week later, on June 26th , we’re doing a show at Kings Park as part of the Nimfest that Newport does every summer. This is an outdoor show in a beautiful setting where people set up lawn chairs, and probably the only show I can bring my one year old daughter to. And we’ll be playing a lot of acoustic tunes, mostly from our first album “Sleeping Dogs Lie”, which we really haven’t played in a few years, along with maybe some Dylan tunes or Leonard Cohen and things like that. And then for the month of July I’ll be doing a huge festival tour across Europe with my other band, The Turbo AC’s… So we’ll get some huge crowds and stages for that one…so yeah….I’m not a one trick pony. I hope.
KS: How many instruments do you play? What was your first? Why did you pick it up?
MM: Oh man…there are instruments I can play, and instruments I can kind of get by on. My first was guitar – somehow I was born with a great love for music and would start dancing in the supermarket and things like that whenever Michael Jackson came on haha. But my great aunt gave me a classical guitar, and I just started making up things on it, listening to songs and trying to learn them, stuff like that. I never took lessons. Then in my first band I played the drums, and still think that’s some of the most fun to play. But along the way I also played harmonica, piano, ukulele, bass, and singing. I tend to pick something up, learn a bit, then get frustrated and not play it for a while, and then pick it up again, and the cycle continues, until eventually it’s like…”hey, I know how to play the guitar!” BUT, for me, the goal was never to be a great guitarist or anything. Instruments were always a tool I used to get a song out. For me, songwriting is where I excel. I feel like every time I go on Facebook there’s a tiny kid slaying a Van Halen solo or something like that – which, don’t get me wrong, is amazing, and I can’t do it, but – I don’t know – songwriting always seemed like the most prestigious and mysterious part of music. The kid on Facebook has great muscle memory, ok, but – does he have anything to say? To me those kids are kind of like the jocks of the guitar world. I mean, Hank Williams songs are like two chords, but within those two chords, he wrote “I’m so lonesome I could cry”, ya know? And I got into music because I wasn’t part of the crowd and I had things I wanted to express, to help find other people who felt like I did, and make something beautiful and pure that was something I did myself that no one can take from me. I’d love to write a song for someone else to perform, too. I haven’t done that yet.
KS: Who do you think fans would be surprised to know you listen to regularly?
MM: Oh man, that’s a tough one….Comedy..I love comedy, and I listen to it a lot, and I make a lot of jokes, and study comedians and timing and stuff a lot. Another thing I’ll get around to trying some day. You’d think for all my sad dark songs, I wouldn’t know how to laugh, but you’d be wrong..But I assume you mean music… I take elements from all kinds of music..I mean, I’m not that into something like techno, or dubstep, but I’ve made the music before, to understand it, and take what I can and send it through my own filter to see what comes out. And honestly it’s really fun, and easy. But again, you gotta make a great song out of it, which isn’t easy. But let’s see…I mean, I kinda like some of those pop gals sometimes – I like Santigold. I toured with Elle King, who blew up huge – her record is pretty okay. She’s still mad at me for breaking her heart though haha! Some rap stuff – like Kool Keith, I love him, he’s so weird. I went down the folk road for awhile, but I got a little sick of it for a bit when it got all mainstream popular and everyone started dressing like they were in the 1800’s and people started buying tickets before they knew who was even playing. It was never about that for me…But I’m coming back around to it.I like some of the guys like Huey Lewis or ELO and stuff like that too. But mostly I listen to punk rock, rock n’ roll, garage stuff…that’s my first love, and I’ll never leave it. But it’s definitely not the only sound that comes out of me. It’s a weird feeling getting up there with an acoustic and not being able to hide behind anything like loud guitars and drums – it’s a total other skillset that I didn’t expect, but….good, ya know?
KS: What and who influenced you to make a life of music? Did they change? Speaking of change, how has having a daughter effected your music?
MM: Oh man, another loaded question. I think a perfect storm of events happened in my life to get me so deep into music. In no particular order – I grew up too fast. I always hung around older people. When I was ten I was hanging out with grown-ups down at the Waterbrothers ramp every day. I learned a lot there, and then when I went to school, I always felt like the other kids were immature and into juvenile bullshit. I’m kind of an old soul. I went to a few punk shows in Providence back then, and then I’d go to school, and it was like “this is crazy. These kids have not seen anything close to what I’ve seen.” And at some point, actually I remember it pretty clearly, it was around 6th grade – but have never really talked about it – I went inward and became really depressed, but tried to mask it, for about, oh I don’t know – 20 years. I was painfully quiet. I was really short and skinny for most of my school years…I had long hair, I was into skateboarding before it was anything close to being an Olympic televised sport…so – it was sort of like I had a target on my back. I didn’t raise my hand when I knew the answer because I didn’t want to be noticed. Crazy. I mean I have great parents who are still together and who I see every day, and I had all the things a kid needs to successfully grow up, but I’m just not naturally bubbly and optimistic. It’s just a chemical imbalance or whatever, I have no idea – I can’t explain it. And I still battle it every second of every day, and it’s brutal, and it’s exhausting, and I don’t wish it on anyone. It’s like carrying around an invisible boulder on your shoulder that no one can see, but they still expect you to keep up with life. But music was an escape, for one thing – I could listen to it and forget about things – and I would picture myself as the band and think about how these people are put up on such pedestals, and how I had to force myself to be invisible, and I hated it. A fire started building inside me – I wanted to scream. I would love to read the liner notes inside records, and I idolized the people that were in these aggressive bands, because they didn’t have to care about anything, and everybody loved them. Well that’s what I thought at the time. And another thing that was huge – they had a voice. I remember walking down the street and hearing a band inside a club and thinking about the singer like “man, listen to that…everybody knows what that guy has to say, I can hear him all the way down the street.” That was amazing to me, because I felt like screaming all day every day in school. The other kids mostly just seemed like knuckle-dragging cavemen to me – I hated having to dumb myself down to fit in. I’m an observer. I’ll find your weak point in a minute and tuck it away in case I need it as a weapon. That was my best defense back then. Words. I learned to use words as weapons, and thus – here comes the perfect storm again – I fell in love with words. I used my words to put into songs, and I felt like “ok, I can actually do what those guys on stage are doing. I can be that guy.” And so I decided what to be, and I became it. I trained myself down to my cells to become this person who could so happily and easily sink into this art form and close my eyes and be happy. It was the only thing that made me happy. It was the only place, and still is, the only place, where I feel like I belong – like I’m supposed to be there. Everywhere else I’m an impostor. I always feel like I have to escape the situation and leave. But not in music – music is like going home. I am this person. It’s all magic to me – because I make myself see it as I did when I was young – the lights on stage bouncing off of the cymbals – all those buttons – what are all those buttons? Unfortunately I don’t get to be this person very often. That is the greatest pain in my life – I don’t get to be who I am. People always said “you’re like a whole different person on stage”, and I’d always say “that’s not me up there, I’m someone else when I’m up there”, but I’ve recently realized that that’s backwards. That is me up there, and it’s not me down here. I just don’t feel comfortable doing my life. Having my daughter has been the greatest thing I could ever imagine, and when I’m with her I’m happy, and when I get to be music guy I’m happy, but otherwise I’m still pissed. I mean, it helps me write songs I guess, but…depression is a bitch, man. I feel for anybody who’s been down in that hole. Having a daughter has made me really happy. I cannot believe how rewarding being a parent is – that’s a new feeling – now I have two things in life where I feel like I’m the best man for the job. My daughter is like oxygen to me, just as music has always been – I cannot exist without either.
KS: What is success to you?
MM: ………. The artist Henri Matisse said “An artist must never be a prisoner. An artist should never be a prisoner of himself, prisoner of style, prisoner of reputation, prisoner of success, etc.” I like that. The truth is that everybody does what they do because they want a feeling of importance, right? That is the motivating force of all people, I think – to feel important. So it’s tricky – I mean, having people tell you they cry every time they hear your song, and that it’s one of the best written songs they’ve ever heard – that’s a pretty powerful feeling of importance. So is that the goal? Or is success measured by money and fame? I’m sure that was a huge motivating factor when I was I kid – but I’ve realized that I’m a homebody, and that I hate being a slave to money. I live in the woods in the middle of nowhere, and I really don’t want to do anything or see anybody or answer the phone – so having people pawing at me all day doesn’t sound that appealing. I would like to have the option of sitting on the couch in the middle of the day and watching a movie and turning my brain off and not having to go anywhere anytime soon, and no one bothering me, and me not bothering me either. That would be fantastic. I’d love to be rich and famous too, who wouldn’t, right? It’s weird because I’ve played in front of thousands of people, had lines of people waiting for autographs, but no one knows who I am at the same time. It’s funny how – and I’ve heard other people say this too – that the people in your hometown don’t really care about you – you always gotta go to the next town. Far away people always seem to appreciate it more, I don’t know. I lead a double life. So am I successful when I get to tour the world and play big festivals and things? Or am I successful when I get to sit in my dark little studio and record things all alone and off the grid? I mean, they’re both incredible haha. Of course, when I’m home, I miss the road, and when I’m on the road, I miss home. So…having some kind of inner peace might be the answer too…that could be what success is..or being able to be who I am 24/7. That’s it. Unfortunately that probably only happens with a lot of money. One of my great downfalls is that I love music, but I hate the music business. It’s very fake – you gotta play the game. You gotta let your real self be killed off a little, and become what they think you’re supposed to be, and I’m notoriously bad at the expected brown-nosing you’re supposed to do with some of those people. I’ve burned a couple bridges, I regret some and don’t regret some.I hate when everybody always says they have no regrets. If you don’t regret something, you don’t learn from your mistakes, right? But – I value my art, and I love making it, and I know that no matter what they think they can do to me, they can’t stop me from creating my art, and I know it’s good, and I’m not going to die so they’ll like me. I feel dead already sometimes, and sometimes I feel like I’m the only person who is alive – go figure that one out.
KS: If you could jam with anyone alive or dead who would it be?
MM: It’s weird because growing up, most of my idols were underground bands that were not mainstream at all…but I didn’t really understand that. To me, they were superstars, I mean…little kids have a way of not knowing the difference…when they love something, they love it, and it’s important to them, whether the band is famous for real or not…they’re famous to the kid…and I think that’s kind of cool. So it’s kind of surreal when I’ve eventually gotten to play with a lot of these bands, and befriend some of them. People who, when I was ten, I would’ve been happy if they made eye contact with me. Now, I can call them on the phone if I want to, and it’s not even a thing. But it’s also kind of a long, slow, heartbreak – to find out your idols are just regular guys, who are still fighting for recognition, and who most people don’t really care about, and they’ve suffered immensely in order to keep playing, and that that’s what might happen to me. But what I’ve found in a lot of these people that are still doing it is that they still have a reason to do it…they still find some kind of magic in it. Even when that magic fades, they can find new reasons. That’s one of the many skills you gotta learn that no one tells you about. I really wish I could pass on all of the hard lessons like that that it’s taken me my lifetime to learn. But to answer your question, I don’t know…Maybe Tom Waits, or Iggy Pop – both are fucking insane in their own great way, and I want to have that.
KS: Trump 2016?
MM: I don’t want to start spewing about who sucks at what – I guess that’s what Twitter is for, I don’t know, I don’t use it..and Trumps tiny little hands are furiously tweeting at this very moment enough nonsense to go around… Mostly I just don’t want to get started down the political road in this chat.. I might not stop, and this might go on for days. Fran Liebovitz said something like “People say they like him because he’s not a politician…Ok.. When your toilet is broken, you don’t pick up the phone and go ‘hello…can you connect me with someone who’s not a plumber please?'” Also, I was never into clowns.
I finished our interview with a one shot game of would you rather, asking if Mike would rather be deaf or blind. For me it what somewhat rhetorical, as I knew which he’d pick. He answered,
“I’ve been asked a couple times if I’d rather fly or be invisible, but never blind or deaf which seems like a tougher question. If I were blind, it would suck, because I would barely be able to function and I would be tripping over myself all day, and if I were deaf I wouldn’t be able to hear music that I love. But I think I’d rather be blind because I don’t see the world the way everybody else does anyways, and if I were blind, maybe it would help me to just sink deeper into music, but then again, I am often wrong.”
For someone like Mike O’Donnell, who has poured everything he’s got into his music, tripping over oneself seems a small sacrifice to pay to hear music over silence.
You can catch The Skinny Millionaires with Mikey Millionaire on guitar and vocals, Sam “D’Shawn” Westman on drums, Nick Papagiorgio on bass, and Matt Meehan on guitar, a couple more times in Newport this June before Mikey heads to Europe to tour with The Turbo AC’s this July. Check out original music, videos, shows at www.facebook.com/
Kiddo Shakespeare hails from Las Vegas, Nevada. She spends most of her time in Newport, RI, tutoring and coaching underprivileged kids about their unlimited potential. She enjoys live music, sarcasm, and strategic anarchy.