Mike Viola & the Candy Butchers
The Candy Man: An Amazing Conversation with Mike Viola
Mike Viola and his band, the Candy Butchers, may appear to have come on the scene from nowhere, but Viola, 32, has been making music since he was thirteen. Before he even graduated from high school, Mike and his band, Snap, were scoring gigs with Quiet Riot and Billy Idol. A sneaker commercial you may have seen in the early ’80s featured a teenage rock star, played by Mike, running from a throng of screaming girls. At 14, he was in Hollywood making a record with the notorious Kim Fowley. The weirdest thing of all is that Mike is perhaps best known for his unaccredited lead vocal on the title song to the Tom Hanks film, That Thing You Do (sung in the movie by fictional band the Wonders). He is also an accomplished sound engineer, having worked with Rasputina, Nancy Jackson, Deniece Williams, and Arto Lindsay. Mike Viola is the epitome of a musician who is also the ultimate rock and roll fan. Furthermore, he’s really cute, and a really nice guy. But I digress.
The Candy Butchers, Mike Viola’s main vehicle of personal expression for the past four years, has metamorphosed from an acoustic duo to a hard rocking three piece, with Mike Levesque on drums and Pete Donnelley on bass. Fueled by Mike’s deeply personal songwriting, the Candy Butchers create vibrant, ass-kicking power pop that can best be described as an amalgam of the Beatles, the Jam, Elvis Costello, and the Raspberries. One day this past summer, I met with Mike Viola in the office of his manager, Danny Bennett, son of Tony Bennett and president of the newly launched RPM records, an affiliate label of Columbia Records. Over the course of what proved to a very entertaining and somewhat bizarre conversation, Mike Viola talked about the autobiographical nature of the material on Falling Into Place , the group’s awesome major label debut. But mostly, we just talked about music, and he told me the wildest rock and roll road story I’ve ever heard.
Looking at how the record kicks off with “Falling Into Place,” an optimistic song about things really coming around for you, or even the sense of surrender to faith that’s evident in the lyric, is that indicative of your philosophy at this point?
I think that’s fair to say. I guess if I do have some sort of pocket philosophy, that would be it; letting go of a lot of anxieties about myself and people around me. It’s funny, because that song was [meant to be] last. My idea was to start it off with “Killing Floor,” which is the beginning of this chunk of time that I went through and wrote about, with redemption being “Falling Into Place.” But then it became kind of a preamble and the thesis [of the record]. I guess that song means that I came out the other end, and this is what I found.
I think a lot of people will be attracted to the message of transformation that’s inherent in the music on Falling Into Place .
I hope so, because it’s, like you said, a transformation, the album’s definitely about that. It’s about becoming something else, getting there and getting through it. I hope it does connect on that level. That’s kind of the dichotomy of the whole Candy Butchers name; all my music is just about that. Like “Break Your Heart” is something you can get down with in a rock or pop way, but it really is something else. Thirty-two years of experience went into those small concrete lines that almost read like fortune cookies sometimes (laughs).
Yeah, I can see how someone would get into that song, ’cause it’s just so catchy, but when you listen to the lyrics, it’s really almost painfully profound what you’re saying.
My life, in particular, has been hard enough, and the lessons that I’ve learned have been hard enough that I’ve been tempered by my own experience. My life has definitely been a trial by fire. I never belonged to any sort of religion or any sort of club or clique. It’s always been just me on my own. I’ve fallen in love deeply a few times in my life, and had tragic things happen to those people. I think everyone, when they examine their lives, they can find that they too possess the lessons right there.
It seems that music must have influenced you from a very young age, almost like a “Rock and Roll is my Religion” kind of thing.
I think that if I wanted to believe in something, it would probably be all the great records I’ve listened to. This one’s going to sound obvious, but Pet Sounds probably got me through my adolescence. I was lucky to get it at a young age, cause lot of people my age got it when they were in their 20’s, but I got the record when I was a teenager. And things like Bruce Springsteen; that really set the standard for me as a human being. Kids do believe in records, and they believe in pop culture up to a point, then they realize it’s all show business. But the stuff that has substance to it, like a Tom Waits or a Randy Newman or Bruce Springsteen, you can still listen to that when you’re older. Like the Beatles; a perfect example of just being able to balance show business with profundity that’s just unsurpassed. It doesn’t happen anymore.
I see music going back to a kind of rock and roll that has a less superficial and a more time-enduring quality. At least to the point where, this year especially, I can find a lot of new records that I really like. Not everything is a flavor of the month.
Right. It’s tough, because most people around me, people that I meet and work with, they do fall into that trap. They’ll play me a record that’s the next big thing, and I go “Damn, I’m out of the loop!” And I LOVE new music, totally love modern music. I’m very optimistic about music, too. I’m not one of those anachronistic people that sit around like a man out of time. I refuse to be that, you know? I listen to my share of Backstreet Boys — no, I don’t! — [laughs]. Actually, I do. I was at Virgin Megastore — ’cause I go there to listen to records, because records are too expensive [laughs] — so I go there to listen to Backstreet Boys to see what that sounds like. What is this? Why are there millions of people buying this? And it’s because it’s so cinematic, and it’s like a commercial: there’s one verse and one chorus in that hit they have. That’s it, they just repeat “Fire” and “Desire.” I plan on covering that song. My band’s not crazy about it, but I really want to do it. (Sings) “I want it that-a-way” [laughs].
You have a really cool shtick that you do in your live performances, that shows off this great sense of improvisational humor you have. At the Mercury Lounge, I can remember seeing you ask for more sound in your monitor and turning into a little song. It was so cool. Where does that come from?
Survival skills [laughs], really, just feeling like “Oh God, everything’s going to collapse.” When things go wrong, that’s when I shine the brightest. If I ever do live TV, which I’m actually supposed to do in a couple weeks on Conan O’Brien , it’s probably going to be the worst that you’ve ever seen. To me, if things are all set up I gotta knock ’em down. It’s just too tempting, it’s like walking into a room and seeing a house of cards. So, [let’s say] the show is going and I can’t hear my voice. Some performers, I don’t know what they’d do, but my [thing] is just to make a big joke out of it. I guess it’s almost like nervous laughter. It’s become part of the show in kind of a sick way.
One of these days it’s going to come back and bite me on the ass, though. [One time] I wrote a song about the light man, who I had asked to turn out the lights — I was just kidding, I was just joking — because I was on the side of the stage jamming, and I was in the dark. I was like “Turn off the lights!” or something stupid and he gave me the finger! And I was like, whoa! And I stopped the band and I wrote a song about him called “Wet Paint” on the spot [laughs]. So it’s all about survival skills. Falling down but just getting right back up again.
On the song “Hills of LA,” I think you really captured the kind of surreal/unreal essence of Los Angeles with the lyrical pictures you paint. How much time have you spent in LA?
I was doing that Tom Hanks movie, That Thing You Do , and I was there to sing [on] the soundtrack and play guitar. They put me up at this hotel and the song just kind of came out of boredom and just staring… staring out at the hills of LA, you know? Then, I was in a car on the way to the studio and I saw this — and this sounds kind of like one of Jewel’s stories, so I apologize if it does — but I saw this homeless guy. I was just thinking, “he’s about as anonymous as me.” I don’t know, I went into this whole chain of thought where I was like “okay, here I am in this limousine on the way to the studio, and who the hell am I? And here’s this guy… and nobody is anybody.” I started to come up with this idea and it just kind of came out of me. Then they put me in another hotel and I wrote another verse. I was there for a week and the song kind of came together.
It does seem a bit episodic. It’s just a great song, kind of beautiful and disturbing at the same time.
It’s very different out there, no doubt about it. But [the song is] also about the people who move there, to become stars or musicians, or whatever. They’re homeless in their own way. There’s really no place to spread your roots there. It’s a desert. It’s that sort of homelessness, that displacement that the song is about. “I worry about what I’ve become…” that whole thing.
I read that when you were 14 you had spent some time in Los Angeles recording an album with legendary producer Kim Fowley?
I lived with him for two weeks. He had a 20-year-old girlfriend. Bambi was her name. She was great. We wrote a whole album’s worth of songs together. I wrote the music and he wrote the lyrics…actually she wrote the lyrics. We recorded them and it’s the weirdest record you’ll ever hear [laughs]. It is just twisted. It’s called Back to the Playground . It was all this bubble gum stuff, [Kim] really wanted me to go there. He had me as a thirteen-year-old Elvis Presley, or Jim Morrison, actually is what he wanted. He had me dressed in leather at a playground, you know, like beating kids up. Like that was my image and he was gonna go for it. We did [the record] in two weeks… but I went back to Boston and my friends were just like, “Man, this is so lame,” because I was into bands like Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, and Judas Priest, the Beatles. And he had me doing this bubblegum rock that was just — now, again hindsight being the powerful tool that it is — it’s just hilarious and really twisted. I promise that I’ll put it on my Web site eventually. It’s so weird.
You probably made the right decision. No one wants to be a washed up teen idol.
Yeah. Not only that, it’s just that it wasn’t really that good. I had this song called “It’s Alright” that was about this guy and a girl doing something or other, and he changed it to “Message to Planet Earth from the Next Generation” (laughs).
I predict Back to the Playground will resurface on Rhino Records in about five years. I love that story!What is the deal behind promoting the band as “Mike Viola and the Candy Butchers” rather than just “The Candy Butchers”?
That actually came out of [when] I was watching MTV one afternoon when they actually had music on [laughs]. They were interviewing these kids at a Third Eye Blind concert. This was right after Todd [former drummer for Candy Butchers when they were an acoustic duo] left. [At this point,] the name of the band is Candy Butchers, and it’s just me — and Pete and Mike, but they were still not really in the band — it’s still my thing. But I’m watching MTV, and they’re interviewing these kids and they’re all going [imitates excited teenager], “Oh my God! Third Eye Blind!” The interviewer said “Who’s your favorite member?’ And the girl’s like “I don’t know, who’s yours?’ And the other kid’s like “The dude with the…” and the other guy’s is like “That dude with the…” and no one could name anybody [in the band], I swear to god.
Then they did another [interview] for Matchbox 20, and no one could name a member of that band. And they’re huge bands! Then it dawned on me, (laughs) you know what, it isn’t for ego reasons, it’s mainly for career [reasons]. People should know my name, because I’ve done so many things in my career, and I’ll do many more. If I have any success, if I do something, I think that people who get into the band should know who’s behind it. Some people were miffed about [the name]. This girl from Japan interviewed me a couple of weeks ago and she just could NOT put it together. She was just like “But you ARE Candy Butchers. How could it be AND THE?” It’s really got to be this way.
At least for now. I mean I can remember when I was a teenager and knew the names of every single person in every band I liked. And if a member of a band left or died, that band broke up.
That band broke up, that was it, I know.
I couldn’t name anyone in Third Eye Blind either.
Me neither, but I have the album. I listen to it. I could sing the songs, but I could not name one member of that band. The thing is, they have that major album and who knows what the next one will do? If it doesn’t [make it] and the band splinters, and someone in that band wants to do something else, no one’s going to know [who he was or what band he was in]. Then you have to start your career all over again. It’s so damn hard these days…so that’s my motivation.
The band that you were in when you were a teenager and in your early 20’s, Snap, I understand you guys toured with bands like Quiet Riot, the Plasmatics, and Billy Idol. Do you have some interesting memories of playing with those groups?
Well, yeah, actually, the Plasmatics, their crowd, they hated us, ’cause we weren’t anything like that. We were power pop, but a little less refined than we are now. And this is like the whole front row (frowns and gives the finger with both hands) just giving us the finger, the whole set. I could not understand why. I had my ’80s hairdo, all puffed up, with my bolo tie, and then [Wendy O Williams] comes out with duct tape on her nipples, and that’s it.
Then we played with Billy Idol, which was great. It was right before his record really hit, and his band was really kick ass. It was the Rebel Yell record, so that was cool.
[When we played with] Quiet Riot, this guy killed himself at the concert, while I was playing. What happened was it was outside in front of 30 thousand people in this place in Providence. There was this big huge electrical tower, and he climbed up it. Then the promoter came up behind me and he pulled on my shirt and he was like “Tell that guy to get down.” But I’m 16 years old, and people are rocking out — we were more hard edged then, too. Then he goes, “I will stop the show if that guy doesn’t get off that tower!” And I was like, “I ain’t telling him.” So, finally, he unplugs my guitar and he grabs me by the scruff of the neck, and he’s like, “Tell that guy to get off that fucking tower or we’re canceling the show!” So with him holding me like this [demonstrates], I grab the mike and I’m like, “get off that tower or they’re going to cancel the show!” And the crowd turns and looks up at the guy and goes [chants] “Jump, jump, jump…” And this guy goes — whoosh — jumps off the tower and dies right there.
Did you know right away that he was dead?
What happened was, we all went, “Oh my god!” and the drummer stopped playing and the crowd just surged over to where he fell. Then the people in the back ran up to the front of the stage — cause they didn’t see it happen, for whatever reason. Then those people came back [to where they had been], and there was a riot. No mosh pit, forget that, it was just people kicking the shit out of each other outside in the hot sun.
Afterwards the promoter came up to me and said, “Look, that guy is dead.” and I was like, “I didn’t do it. You can’t shoot the messenger. You’re the one, you had me by the neck, dude.” And he was like, “Well you’re not going to be held responsible for it.” But I was 16 years old, I was crushed.
That’s the most incredible story anyone has ever told me in answer to the “got any good tour stories” question. When did that happen?
[It was] In the early ’80s. He fell into like four feet of water, ’cause he thought it was the ocean. It turns out he was tripping. This is the sad part, his brother [had] climbed up to get him. His brother’s up there looking for him, and the guy is dead in four feet of water. It was horrible. They were both tripping.
You would have to be high to actually jump. How can you top that story?
Yeah, I was talking to John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants — we were touring together, I played guitar with them for awhile. In the van, you get bored, and he’s like, “So, tell me some rock stories, whaddya got?” I’m like, “You don’t wanna hear my rock stories, man.” He gave me one that was like, “One time, we drank six beers,” or whatever it was [laughs], and I told him that one, and he’s like, “Jesus Christ, Mike, you’re carrying that shit around?”
Good story, Mike. I also heard that you played with Roy Orbison on the last show he did before he passed away?
I did play with him, his second to last gig at the Channel in Boston, as Snap. We actually did really, really good, because it was an older crowd, like baby boomers, and we were playing progressive pop at the time, kind of an XTC or Squeeze thing. I’d just bought this John Lennon record where he does all these rock and roll covers, and we learned the whole album. Then we got this gig with Roy Orbison, so we just played “Rip it Up,” “Ready Teddy,” and all these Little Richard songs, and did this huge medley. People loved us! It was a great experience, and we felt like we did really well.
Then Roy came on and was just able to do a hundred times better than us, obviously, but also to do it in a way that was so deep and dark without being maudlin. He had this way of singing, it was like, man, this guy is the next thing. For me, the Byrds, the Hollies, anything ’60s [I was so into], but Roy, I really missed. I just didn’t get the operatic thing, until I saw him live. When he died, I felt this connection because I played with the guy, on the same stage. I don’t know, I just felt like that was something I hadn’t tapped into yet, because I was always trying to be so superficially whimsical or something in pop. Roy didn’t do any of that, but he came on, and it was still melodic, but it was so deep. It was the real deal.
He was always great, he never lost it. That’s the kind of music that I love.
Me too. Kids like that [popular] stuff because it’s like new sneakers that everyone’s gotta have. I understand that part of music, and I don’t hate any band for doing that. But I just choose to listen to the music, like you’re saying, that transports you in some way, or transforms you.
It’s cool to listen to a piece of music and get the feeling that it isn’t going to date. That it’s going to be around in the future. There’s a lot of great music out there. There’s a lot of crap too, but that has to do with the sheer volume of “product.”
That’s the view I think you’ve gotta take, because it’s not deluding yourself or saying, “Oh, I see the sunny side of things.” It’s really seeing things for what they are. It’s just a saturated market. There’s more fish in the ocean now. You’ve just got to choose what you want.