Interview by: Mike Farley
here for Mike's review of Play with Your Head, the latest release
from the Candy Butchers.
Most music fans will recognize the slightly raspy, straight-on rock voice of Mike Viola, frontman of the Candy Butchers out of New York City, from the motion picture of a few years back called "That Thing You Do." Mike co-wrote the song and was the voice behind the singing part of the Tom Hanks character.
But the Candy Butchers have released two albums in the past two years on RPM Records, a division on major label giant Sony. Their music is pure pop/rock magic with infectious hooks and brilliant songwriting. I recently got to chat with Mike while he was in San Francisco in between tour dates with Robyn Hitchcock.
Mike Farley: So you're from New York, aren't you?
Mike Viola: I'm from Boston originally. And I moved to New York about seven years ago to pursue music professionally, to do the things you need to do to get a deal and all that. In Boston I was just enjoying hometown status and that was perfectly cool.
MF: Is Boston still like going home when you tour?
MV: No, not really. Most of the people that were there and were part of the inner circle all moved, there was a mass exodus, no pun intended. A couple of guys from that band Fountains of Wayne and I were all friends in Boston. Adam Schlessinger moved back to New York where he's from. I was married and had a life in Quincy, Mass. And my wife died, so it fucked up my whole life and I wound up moving in with Adam in New York, started the Candy Butchers and got a deal. So everybody came from Massachusetts after that, and no one's really left in Boston.
MF: So how did you guys get your deal? Did you just shop it around and have label reps come out and see you in New York?
MV: Just played Fez…we did a residency there. We played every other Tuesday for a summer and built up a really good core following and started to get a buzz. Producers approached us before record companies did, some really good ones like Mitchell Froom, Don Was and Rick Rubin, some really cool heavy hitters. I'm a fan of theirs and they gave me a lot of advice. We were really precious with the whole concept of the band and what to do, what a label could do for us and what we would do on a label. So we held out and we got this deal with Blue Thumb, which was this psychedelic little label. Dave Mason and Frank Zappa might have done something on there. Captain Beefheart, that's who it was! Anyway, the label was resurrected and then we were signed to that. Us and Doctor John were the only ones on the label, then it folded before our record could come out. So that record was finished and we called it the Blue Thumb record, which is now widely bootlegged and shared online.
MF: So you've been together as the Candy Butchers for how long?
MV: This incarnation, about six years. It started out as an acoustic duo with this other guy who bailed. But he's not playing music anymore.
MF: How did you get involved with singing "That Thing You Do" and how did that help you?
MV: It hasn't really helped at all. It gave me a little bit of dough, but not that much. I got involved with some publishers, and Tom Hanks and Twentieth Century Fox put the word out that they were looking for a very "Beatley" song and it had a title. So Difford and Tillbrook (of Squeeze), Robyn Hitchcock and They Might Be Giants…everybody put in a submission. Schlessinger was trying to get me to write a song with him and I said, "I don't wanna do that!" But he came over and he had this song and I helped him finish it. And then we recorded it together. And they picked it. It was kind of a joke, and we started this band which was like the paradigm for Fountains of Wayne…that is, write and record music in real time, like don't over-think it too much. Then we got the gig ("That Thing You Do") and things kind of changed. Some people got greedy and let's just say I'm on tour by myself in a car (laughs). But the experience was positive besides the end of the story. I try to find the good in everything and I'm better off just being me.
MF: How would you describe your music to people who haven't heard it?
MV: I would definitely say that it's like self-expressive pop music. In other words, I don't try to fit into a genre. I just try and be as self-expressive as I can, and that's why people who really like me, really like me. I'm someone trying to say something even if it's a small thing, and when I'm on stage I try to connect. It's not about a genre but more about self-expression.
MF: You're doing some solo acoustic tour dates now. Are there any plans for a full-band tour?
MV: Yeah, we're trying to get on a support tour. Just looking for the right one to come our way. Like, this Robyn Hitchcock tour was perfect for me but not the band, so I took it. But we're looking for a band that's got something going on that needs an opening act.
MF: Is there anyone you think would be a good fit?
MV: They're doing this Clearchannel tour that they might put us on, which I'm calling the "Death Star" Tour. Clearchannel is just so ubiquitous now. I could look within a 360-degree radius and find a Clearchannel logo, I'm sure. So they want us to do this tour, and Sheryl Crow's on it. Someone just asked the other day who our crowd is and I don't think we have one yet. We have fans, and we have this cult status.
MF: The people need to hear you, the people who listen to that mainstream stuff. I think if they heard your stuff enough, they would buy it.
MV: I'm glad you think so, some people do. I just don't know who our audience is -- we haven't really had a shot at anything outside of just playing theater clubs, getting a chance to harvest big music fans like yourself, people who just get what we do. That's what our audience is made up of, that and girls. Like 20-something girls somehow identify with it.
MF: You're charting on college radio right now. Has your label pushed you to commercial radio at all?
MV: Yeah, but I'm sure you understand the extreme amount of money involved.
MF: It's not payola or anything.
MV: Yeah, it's pretty much payola -- if we're gonna call it what it is. With my first record we spent busloads of money. And buying plays did what it did on commercial radio in some areas like Reno, Nevada and Vermont. But it was so much money, and I just said let's focus on another method -- let's save our money for something else that makes sense. And even though we have a label with great distribution and some money, the business has changed so much. If you're not THE priority artist you might as well just be independent.
MF: Who are your songwriting influences?
MV: Randy Newman, Tom Waits. Definitely the Beatles and the Beach Boys. The more obvious stuff would be Neil Finn and Elvis Costello. But I don't really listen to that music anymore because I know it so well. It's part of what I do.
MF: What's in your CD player right now?
MV: Right now, it's Charlie Parker, The Dial Sessions. It's a 4-CD set that my rock journalist friend gave me for the road.
MF: Is that the guy from Rolling Stone (Jason Fine) who said something in your album jacket about going over your house and writing a song?
MV: Yeah, we became friends over the summer when I was making that record. He's one of the main editors over there and I'm on the road all the time, so our friendship role is we feed each other music. He's like, "You have to listen to Charlie Parker" and I'm like, "You have to listen to the Dickies," so we feed each other music and keep our record collections vital.
MF: One of my questions that I always like to ask is, do you have any funny stories from the road? But before I do that, a good friend of mine saw you in Austin, Texas a few years ago and you were playing in this club and the sound went out, so you went and played on some pickup truck in the street.
MV: Yeah, that has gone down in a little bit of mythology. It's funny because people that know me show up hoping something fucked up is going to happen. People just kind of wait, because ultimately in show business people just wanna see you jump through the rings. And that's fine with me…for instance, two nights ago in Seattle…I was at the Crocodile Cafe and it's kind of a famous place. Nirvana played there and stuff, and I was pretty humbled by the fact that the people who run the club were Candy Butchers fans.
But I was a little nervous because I was made to feel so comfortable. So I go onstage and the audience is made up of "Hi Fidelity" record store people, just total music critics -- no women, all men. All just with their critic hat on, but that's cool. So I start playing and it's just like stone face people in the crowd. And I'm kicking ass, like really playing well -- I had the "juice." So I get to the bridge of my song, and start to pick harder and harder, and I break a string. But alas, we always have to rely on the subconscious. I dealt with it, like I had no roadie and no tour manager -- by choice I want to be out here by myself. So I have no spare guitar. It was literally like juggling all these balls in the air, and while they were in the air I ran into the dressing room, got a spare string and came back and told this lenghthy story while I changed the string, and people loved it. It's one of those things that's going to go down in the "mythology" again and it's gonna give "break a leg" new meaning, because people really wanna see me break a leg to see what I'll do (laughs).
MF: Our site is pretty sports oriented. Are you or any of the guys in the band sports fans?
MV: No, just that we play pool and darts, and we play poker on the road. But none of us golf or anything.
MF: If you had to tour with Britney Spears or Poison, who would you choose and why?
MV: I would choose Poison, because I could learn a thing or two from them.
MF: I saw you played "Conan O'Brien." How did that go and did it do a lot for you?
MV: It did a lot for our ego, I mean everyone loves to be on TV (laughs). Actually it did do a lot for the profile of the band because people tend to think that if you play late-night TV you've "made it." It's a perception/profiling thing. Did it help us sell records?
Yeah, it definitely did. And it's a nice ego booster. And Conan loves the band -- you can't beat that.
MF: Do you have anything you want to add or plug?
MV: Well, obviously the Web
site. If people like what you're writing about they can go check it out. There's nothing to plug except the record and you've already done a great job of that, which I appreciate.