interview by Michael McCarthy
When I went to see Phantom Planet at The Sinclair in Cambridge, Massachusetts on the 19th of September, I couldn’t have cared less about whoever was going to open the show. I’d been a big fan of Phantom Planet for around 15 years and had never seen them live so they couldn’t have hit the stage fast enough. But then opener Micky James swaggered across the stage and my jaw-dropped before he’d even hit the first chorus of set-opener, “Tie Me Up.” He was wearing the sort of electric pink suit David Bowie might’ve worn during the middle of his career and it was Bowie’s voice that his pipes were immediately calling to my mind as well. But there was a whole lot of Mick Jagger in the song as well, which became clear following the hook-laden chorus, which was like something The Rolling Stones might have written during their heydays in the ’60s or ’70s when they were pumping out one brilliant song after another. James could’ve been striking the same coals as his set went on and songs like “Crybaby” and “Walk the Line” had the audience singing and dancing along with vigor, wanting James set to go on and on. If I was in Phantom Planet, I would’ve been a bit nervous going on after James; he was that damn good. The retro-fitted, future god of rock ‘n’ roll, you could say. I went home and listened to his songs on Spotify and they were every bit as incredible as they’d sounded live. I just had to interview this guy. To that end, I’d actually given him my card after the show when I’d told him how impressed I was, but when I didn’t hear back from him after I few days I sent him a message on Facebook with a link to my Phantom Planet review, at the bottom of which I’d given him a rave review, and finally heard back from him. I was every bit as psyched when he said he’d be up for an interview as I get when one of my childhood heroes becomes available. And so you could say I’m rather excited to bring you the following in-depth interview with Micky, which includes his terrific songs. Read on and listen and see if you’re not as dazzled as I was.
MM: Your Facebook page states that you were born and raised in the shadows of New York City. Does that mean you live in a New York City suburb or is that just a cool way of describing the area of the city that you’re from?
MJ: I actually grew up in New Jersey. So, it’s a cool way of saying I’m from New Jersey. I’ve lived in Jersey most of my life.
MM: Is that where you live now?
MJ: At the moment, yeah.
MM: Do you go into New York City much?
MJ: Yeah, probably three or four times a week. It’s like my home city as an artist when I tour. I kind of established myself there instead of Jersey because, unfortunately, there’s really no scene anymore in New Jersey. There used to be when I was growing up. In the early 2000s with My Chemical Romance and all those bands and stuff like that. It just dissolved. And, as a musician, I had to find somewhere else to play and establish a fanbase and New York City was right there. And I feel like I have a home there with the kind of music I play. There’s just an energy there that flowed with what I was doing.
MM: Do you have enough of a following over there now that you can do headlining shows?
MJ: I think small. Like Mercury Lounge. The little clubs. This project is fairly new, me as a solo artist. And I haven’t toured that much but I’ve kind of played New York quite a bit. Like one-off shows. I think over the past year I’ve established enough of a young fanbase there that I think I could.
MM: Did you grow up in a single or two-parent home?
MJ: Two parents.
MM: Do you have any siblings?
MJ: Yeah, I’ve got a younger brother and an older brother. I’m a middle child.
MM: They say the middle child always feels left out. Has that been your experience?
MJ: No, no, not at all. We’re all equal.
MM: Would you say you come from a musical family?
MJ: I do. Yeah, very much so. My Dad is a guitar player. He sings a little bit. I have two uncles that are drummers. My cousins, they’re in a band. My younger brother is an artist and photographer. My older brother’s in theatre. So, yeah. Quite a musical family.
MM: What kind of music did your parents listen to when you were growing up?
MJ: They really influenced me. Mainly my Dad with singer/songwriters like Van Morrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson. Not so much my Mom, mainly my Dad. And my Uncle got me into the rock ‘n’ roll bands like Led Zeppelin and Elvis, Chuck Berry.
MM: Did you take any sort of music lessons when you were a kid?
MJ: When I was like eight I took some guitar lessons then I kind of gave it up because all I really wanted to learn how to play was Led Zeppelin songs and my teacher at the time taught me one song and I was like, OK, I’m good now and I never really went back. I never took vocal lessons. I kind of just self-taught myself.
MM: Do you play any instruments besides the guitar?
MJ: I can play bass. I can play a little drums. And that’s it. And I obviously sing.
MM: Since there’s a theatrical element to your performances I was wondering if you’ve ever taken acting lessons or done any of that?
MJ: No, you know, I haven’t. And it’s funny, a lot of people have asked me that. My older brother has been performing in theatre since he was a little kid. Maybe that kind of seeped into my subconscious from watching him most of my life. But I think as an entertainer, I was never really the singer in a band. I used to play guitar in bands when I was younger and I always kind of wanted to be in the spotlight and have that attention as a guitar player. So, I feel like being in the spotlight was never an issue for me. I wanted to do more than just play the guitar. I wanted to sing. And once I learned to sing and play guitar, I just kind of wanted to sing and perform. I do that now in my set more than I’ve done with previous bands. So, no, no theatrical training or background.
MM: Do you typically write songs alone or do you collaborate with someone?
MJ: I do both. I write on my own, but most of the songs that I think are out right now I collaborate with these two writers and producers that I work with, Jackson Hoffman and Ryder Stuart. We’ve made and recorded most of the songs I have out together. But, yeah, I bring in ideas. I write by myself in my little home studio and I bring it to the studio and either something blossoms from that or we write something together. We kind of all write together.
MM: How does your songwriting process usually work? For example, do you usually start by programming some beats and then form songs around them or do you write lyrics first? In other words, how does the magic happen?
MJ: It’s in all different ways. Even like you just said some songs start where I can make a beat in my Logic recording software. Sometimes I can write a whole song lyrically in my notes. I just write lyrics and lyrics – kind of like poetically – and then sometimes I’ll pick up the guitar and write a chord progression and melody. I think that’s the amazing thing about songwriting. The part about songwriting that I continue to chase is you don’t really know when that creative spark is gonna light and how it’s gonna be formed and built. I think that’s what’s pretty amazing about it. There’s no recipe to it. It’s not like every day I go to my studio and make a beat and build it from there. I can write a song by getting a cup of coffee. That’s what’s beautiful about the whole process.
MM: I know what you mean because I write books in addition to doing Love is Pop. How you never know when you’re going to get an idea.
MJ: Exactly, yeah.
MM: Do you recall how old you were when you wrote your first song?
MJ: I think I was about seventeen. I don’t remember what it was called. I can remember that it was pretty decent. I would write songs in bands before I was the singer. Just as a guitar player, I knew the formula of writing songs. The structure of it. But I just didn’t know how to sing yet. So, I always kind of had that in my back pocket. Once I learned how to sing, it was like, OK, I know how to write a song. I started to write vocal melodies and establish my voice and lyrics and it came quite quickly and naturally.
MM: If you had to guess, how many songs would you say you’ve written in your life so far?
MJ: Oh, man. I like to say over 200. I mean, from 17 to 18 to now I’m 26. Probably, yeah, 200.
MM: Who are your favorite songwriters?
MJ: That’s tough. To most people, it comes naturally, but I would say John Lennon. I’m a big fan of Bowie. Even The Smiths. Morrisey – I’ve always been a fan of his lyric writing. Lou Reed. I’m a Lou Reed fan. For more of a modern band from my time, The Strokes. I think Julian Casablancas is an amazing songwriter.
MM: Very cool ones. Do you write anything else in addition to songs?
MJ: No, no, I don’t. I think writing songs is the only thing I really write.
MM: How often do you experience writer’s block and what do you do to defeat it?
MJ: I don’t know. I think at first, as a writer, I was new to it so I didn’t really get it. And I thought I had writer’s block, but to me, it’s like going out for a cigarette and coming back is the way I kind of break that writer’s block spell. For me, I don’t like to force creativity. So, if it’s just not happening, it’s not happening. And I’ll go back to it and that’s it. Sometimes I go a few weeks without writing. I just don’t feel it. And then when I do go back, I get something good. I didn’t force it. It’s been sitting in me and then I write something great. So, I’m not one to force it.
MM: I was introduced to your music when I saw you open for Phantom Planet the other night.
MJ: I believe we met, right? In-person?
MM: Yeah, for a minute or two. And I was wondering, did you do that whole little tour that they were doing or did you just do that date?
MJ: I just did that show. Did they have a tour? I know they did Brooklyn the night before. And then Boston but I don’t know if they did…
MM: I think it was just major cities. Maybe five or six of them at most.
MJ: Yeah, kind of like one off shows. I just did the Boston show, which was a lot of fun.
MM: They must have been nervous going on that night after seeing how good you were.
MJ: [Laughs] I mean, they’re super nice guys. But, yeah, I definitely helped warm the crowd up for that. I think they were appreciative. It was cool. They’re a great band. I’ve been a fan of theirs since I was a little kid so it was awesome to watch them. I knew all the songs.
MM: Has there been a band that you’ve opened for at multiple shows yet?
MJ: Oh, yeah. I mean, for being a solo artist, there was this tour that Sirius XM, the radio station, puts on. It’s called the Advanced Placement Tour. They do it for new, up and coming bands. I did that last winter with this band called The Regrettes. They’re a great band. An all-girl punk band. And that was like a 15 city tour. I did a show in L.A. with The Struts. And one-off shows around here. And short regional tours. And in my old band, I did like a 10 city tour with The Struts. And this band Dreamers. So, yeah, yeah, I’ve toured quite a bit. [But] it’s new and hasn’t been that crazy yet. Soon to be.
MM: Are you putting something together right now?
MJ: Yeah, actually. We’ll hopefully have something for before the new year then in the new year.
MM: Let’s talk about some of your songs. Your new single “Crybaby” just came out yesterday. Can you tell us the story behind it or what it means to you?
MJ: I wanted to write a song that really fits and captures my whole live show. I wanted to write a swagger kind of rock ‘n’ roll song. I think that DNA is sprinkled into my songs, but I think with that song I really wanted to go full-throttle. And anybody who’s seen me play is like, “How can we take what you do live and put it on a recording? I want to hear a song like that.” So, we just got into a room and recorded live with a band and I’m really happy with the way it came out. I feel that energy in the song. Conceptually, it’s just kind of about a toxic relationship and being sarcastic. Like I said in some other publications that came out about the song, I wanted to be straight-forward. Like good rock ‘n’ roll songs are. They’re just to the point. When you listen to the Ramones, they say it how it is and that’s what I wanted to say lyrically. Because I also feel like the song, sonically, is very straight to the point. I wanted it all to be a package.
MM: Who produced that one?
MJ: Shep Goodman and Aaron Accetta. They produced it in Connecticut at this studio called Carriage House. And I wrote the song with Jackson Hoffman and Ryder Stuart.
MM: If you could work with any producer alive today, who would you want to work with?
MJ: Hmm. That’s a good question. I think it would be cool to do something with Mark Ronson. I’d like to work with somebody that doesn’t do a lot of work in my genre. And I think Mark also could handle working with a rock artist. He did the Queens of the Stone Age album and that was really cool and I liked how it sounded sonically. I think he’s just such a great musician.
MM: Which Queens of the Stone Age album did he do?
MJ: He did their last one, Villains. It was really cool. It had good grooves on it. It was awesome.
MM: I remember liking it. I just didn’t know he produced it. Your track “Rest of the Best” states that it features Dreamers. That’s a band or a producer?
MJ: That’s a band. They’re based outside of L.A. If you haven’t listened to them, you should check them out. I’ve known them for a few years. My old band did a tour with them. We’ve always kind of stayed connected and I thought it would just be cool to have them feature on a song. Two new rock bands. They’ve been around for a little bit, but I’m relatively new. So, Nick, the singer, sang the second verse on it and he sounded great.
MM: Out of your other songs, is there one that you have something to say about? Like a story behind another one or anything like that?
MJ: Yeah, the song I put out before this last release, “Crybaby,” was a song called “Walk the Line” and I really like that song a lot. I wrote that. That was one of the first songs I wrote for this [solo project]. And, yeah, you know, it’s just kind of like an empowering anthem for the misfit kids. Kind of always be yourself and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Although it might be scary to go down that path of discovering yourself, I think you only feel liberated when you’re truly yourself. So, it’s kind of important to let your freak flag fly.
MM: Is there another one you’d like to talk about?
MJ: “New Heart”’ is cool. I like that one. That was like a coming of age type of song in a way. A rebirth for me as an artist. Kind of rediscovering myself.
MM: Your lyrics give me the impression that you’re a romantic. Would you say that’s accurate?
MJ: Absolutely, yeah. I always find that topic interesting because I think you can tell that story a million different ways. And I think that’s always appealed to me. Most of my favorite songwriters write within that subject.
MM: I know it’s a cliché to ask but do you have any influences you didn’t name as your favorite songwriters?
MJ: In terms of like bands or something?
MM: Yeah, it can be bands or solo artists. Artists who might not be your favorite songwriters but who influenced you in other ways.
MJ: Some of them probably are like I mentioned, the songwriters. The Beatles. The Rolling Stones. And David Bowie. The Strokes. Arctic Monkeys. I’m looking at my record collection right now. The Clash.
MM: Those are great ones. What about Queen?
MJ: I love Queen. I’m a big fan of Queen. You know, it’s funny. A lot of people think that they’d be one of my biggest influences but they’re not. And I love them. I’m a huge fan. But they never had as much impact on me as, let’s say, David Bowie or The Doors.
MM: On a totally different note, was the pink suit you were wearing on stage the other night custom-designed for you?
MJ: Oh, no, it wasn’t. I wish. I got it from this vintage store in Pennsylvania. I’ll give them a shout out. They’re called Thirteen Vintage and they always have great stuff. They thought it would be a great fit for stage and it was.
MM: If you could have any fashion designer alive today design something for you to wear, who would you like to work with?
MJ: Well, there are a few of them. One I would like to work with is Anna Sui. She’s an amazing designer. I think that would be very cool. And this other one, I think her name is Christian Joy. She did a lot of the stage outfits for Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I would love to collaborate with her.
MM: Is fashion design something you might want to do yourself in the future?
MJ: I definitely do it now a little bit. I do some retrofitting. My little brother also does costuming for theatre and stuff and we collaborated on one of my stage outfits for the Sirius XM tour that I did. And it was great and I started to develop a big interest in retrofitting and designing from doing that. So, yeah, I think that’s possible for the future. You know, it’s really time-consuming to do those kinds of pieces. I think if there’s time, yeah, I’d love to dive deeper into that.
MM: If you had to go into the studio today and record a cover, what would you do?
MJ: It’s funny because me and the guys in my band, we always throw this question around. We’re always like, “that would be a great cover,” “this would be a good cover.” The last one we said was…
MM: You can name a couple that you’d like to cover if there isn’t one in particular.
MJ: I think it was a Billy Squier song.
MM: “The Stroke”? “Everybody Wants Some”? [Note: I’ve since looked it up and learned that it’s “Everybody Wants You.”
MJ: “Everybody Wants Some” or something like that. Yeah, that song. The Knack, “My Sharona,” I think that would be great. What else? That’s all I can think of right now. But those get tossed around.
MM: Do you think you will record and release a cover at some point?
MJ: I really want to. Actually, yeah, maybe soon. Maybe I’ll do that next. I’ve always wanted to do a Christmas song. I love Christmas songs. I think it would be cool to do a cover of Tom Petty or John Lennon. That would be awesome. So, maybe I’ll do a cover of a Christmas song and put it out in December.
MM: Do you remember what the first album you ever bought with your own money was?
MJ: I’m trying to think. It might have been – this is not a cool band, but I’ll say it anyway. Do you remember the band Smashmouth?
MJ: Yeah, I think that was the first CD I bought. It had “All-Star” on it. Not really a cool first pick but I can’t lie. So, that was the first one.
MM: What was the last album you bought? And what format was it?
MJ: It was probably vinyl. I’m looking right now. It was The Stooges, actually. A Stooges record. I guess it’s the self-titled one with “I Wanna Be Your Dog.”
MM: That’s a great one. Do you do much streaming and which streaming services do you use?
MJ: I mean, my music is on Spotify. Apple Music. I guess all the streaming services. Anywhere where you could find and download my music, it’s on there.
MM: Do you personally do much listening to Spotify or any of those?
MJ: Yeah, I do, actually. Probably Spotify. I used to listen to Apple Music, but, yeah, Spotify.
MM: When I talk to older artists like the heavy metal guys I grew up listening to, it seems like Spotify doesn’t pay much, but then I’ve talked to newer artists and they tell me they’re living off their Spotify earnings even though they might have fewer monthly listeners. So, I have no clue how they figure out how much they’re going to pay people. But, just out of curiosity, are you able to live off of royalties from streaming services?
MJ: Not really through Spotify. For me personally, it’s more like radio.
MM: What radio stations have you heard yourself on so far?
MJ: Mainly like Sirius XM. They play my stuff.
MM: A friend of mine told me about your old band Karma Killers. I listened to the five songs on Spotify and I thought they were great. What year was that band formed and when did you break up?
MJ: That band was around from 2013 to the end of 2016. We put that EP out in 2015. I think the most touring I did was with that band. Then some of the members did their own thing and I wanted to keep pursuing this so I started writing songs and that’s why I started [as a] solo artist.
MM: Do you do any Karma Killers songs live when you headline?
MJ: I don’t, unfortunately. I think they were of that time and that band. I like my new songs more, so…
MM: When you do a solo headlining show, do you have enough of your own songs that you just haven’t put out yet to fill a set? Or do you do some covers?
MJ: Mainly originals. I used to do this medley of “Helter Skelter” into one of my songs. So, if we did kind of a cover, it was that. But, no, originals. I mean, I have enough originals that I can add and subtract songs from the set anytime I want.
MM: When do you think we might get an album from you?
MJ: I think I’m going to put out more of an EP. I’m not sure I want to put out an album. No specific time. I just put out this new song and I’m probably gonna marinate on it for a little bit, get some more gigs coming in and whatnot. I would say, maybe by next year, an EP. I would probably like to do an EP with new songs. I don’t think I would take the songs that are out now and put them on there. But I wouldn’t hundred percent quote me on that. Because maybe I might put one or two. But probably new songs because there’s a lot of material.
MM: If you could open for any artist at this stage in your career, who would you like to open for?
MJ: Like realistically open for?
MM: Yeah, kind of realistically as opposed to something that’s more like a pipe dream.
MM: You know who I was thinking might be cool? And I think it’s something you might get to be able to do and that’s open for Def Leppard.
MJ: Oh, that would be amazing. But I think that would be kind of a pipe dream. But I was gonna say The Killers or something like that.
MM: That would be great, too. They’re one of my favorite bands.
MJ: Yeah, I’ve seen some smaller bands tour with them and open up. So, I think it’s possible. There’s this band I saw the other night in the city; they’re called Catfish and the Bottlemen. I don’t know if you’ve heard of them?
MM: Yeah, I have.
MJ: They’re a great band. I would love to do a tour with them. Their energy is amazing and I’m such a fan of his songwriting. He’s such a good writer. So, that would probably be a band I’d like to support.
MM: Do you prefer performing live or making music in the studio?
MJ: I think performing. I love writing. Obviously. Writing songs is the number one thing for me. I kind of write the music in order to cater it for live. So, yeah, I definitely like performing more. At this stage in my life.
MM: Do you enjoy being on the road?
MM: Are you doing everything indie right now or do you have a label?
MJ: Yeah, I’m on like a little boutique label that my management kind of operates and they’re called Dirty Canvas. So, it’s indie and boutique.
MM: What was the worst day job you ever had?
MJ: I think… I think I was 19. Or 18. I worked at a hospital. I was transporting patients to different tests and yeah, it was incredibly depressing. So, that was the worst job.
MM: Are you a vegetarian or vegan by any chance?
MJ: I like both. I like meat and I like vegetarian food. I’m kind of in the middle.
MM: What do you do to cheer yourself up when you’re depressed?
MJ: This is probably a cliché answer, but I like to listen to music. I listen to my favorite artists. Sometimes I’ll get emails or messages from fans saying how my music has helped them through dark periods. I know that feeling because my favorite artists have done the same thing to me. Cured that pain. So, music is always the cure for me.
MM: When you’re depressed do you listen to happy songs to cheer yourself up or melancholic songs you can find companionship with?
MJ: Happy. I think so. Yeah, probably. I think if I’m feeling down I’ll probably listen to more rock kind of stuff than balladry music or something. I want something to take me out of my mood.
MM: If the world was going to end in one hour and you only had time to listen to one more album before you die, which would you pick?
MJ: Damn. Oh, shit. [Laughs] I mean, one came into my head right when you said it but I don’t know if it’s the answer I want… I’d have to say Led Zeppelin one. I think that was the first. That popped into my head immediately. Because I’ve listened to that album since I was just learning to play guitar. And it’s an album my whole family listens to. Yeah, I think that would be a good one.
MM: Do you prefer to listen to new music or music that makes you feel nostalgic?
MJ: I like both. Probably new music, though. I’ve [loved] the classic albums I grew up listening to, which I still do, but I feel like you can only listen to that so many times. There’s a lot of great new artists and bands out there and I love having my finger on the pulse and finding new music. I think it’s really exciting.
MM: Yeah, me, too. So, are you currently binge-watching anything?
MJ: You know, I’m not really a big TV show guy. I don’t really watch too much TV. I think there’s just so many shows out there that I can’t even really keep up. Everyone’s gonna watch this show or that show but I don’t really follow it. I watch Youtube. I like that because it’s a quick video. I listen to more podcasts.
MM: Can you name three movies you can watch again and again?
MJ: Yeah. One is Almost Famous. A childhood movie I love. Let me think of a great one…
MM: Any other favorites you’ve watched more than once?
MJ: I think Dumb and Dumber. That’s a really good comedy movie I watched when I was a kid. And let me think of another cool, good movie… This is kind of weird but I love The Shining. I think that’s a really good movie.
MM: Yeah, definitely. One of my all-time favorites, too. So, now, the last two questions I ask everybody. The first one is if you could resurrect any one musician and they’d be happy to be back and make a new album, who would you bring back?
MJ: To make a new album?
MJ: I would like to probably bring back someone more current. I think Amy Winehouse would be amazing. I feel like she needed to put out more music. And she was gone too young. I think she was unbelievable. I’d definitely have her come back.
MM: If someone was giving you a million dollars to give to charity and it all had to go to the same charity or cause, which would you give it to?
MJ: That’s a good one. There are a lot of charities out there.
MM: If you can’t think of a specific charity you can say “I’d give it to breast cancer” or whatever you might want.
MJ: I can’t even think of… There are so many charities. I guess I would say cancer or whatever. To help. I don’t know many charities. If you could name some, I could pick one.
MM: I don’t many of them by name. But there are all different causes like charter schools and ones about preventing animal cruelty and any disease you can think of. If it’s bad and it exists, there’s gotta be a charity raising money to fight it.
MJ: I’m not sure.
MM: Do you want to say you’d give it to cancer then?
MJ: Sure, yeah, we’ll go with that!
Extra special thanks to Micky James for inspiring us with his music and for being such a great interviewee!
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