No Place Like Home

The Bill Mike Band soak up some sun
Amy Fastenau

Bill Mike Band
Better News

After a decade in Minneapolis, Bill Mike still feels a bit under-situated. "My struggle here," he admits, "is that I see so much cool shit that I don't see anywhere else. It's a little overwhelming." Of compact stature, in matching black stocking cap, leather jacket, and full beard, the guitarist and frontman of the Bill Mike Band seems anything but nonchalant about his quest, speaking with an earnestness that evokes a Dorothy trying to make a place for herself in Oz. God knows, he's been in weirder places.

Originally from Ohio, Mike moved to Los Angeles in the early '90s at the behest of a friend who was working as a tour manager. "I drove a truck for a Budweiser tour with a bunch of R&B bands," he recalls. "Cincinnati is a very charming town with not much of a music scene. I'd been in cool bands through high school and college but felt that I really needed exposure to, uh, just about everything."

He got what he wanted: an earthquake or two, tons of tech and journeyman work--"I played a session with Yanni's band. They weren't happy people"--even celebrity neighbors. "I was driving home from work one day," says Mike, "and I see this shorter guy with a baseball cap, long shorts, and this huge haircut. I slowed down 'cause he was walking these two really cool looking dogs, and I'm like, 'Oh my god, that's Ronnie James Dio!' I freaked out."

Mike freaks out easily but expertly, as his debut disc Better News reveals. "I'm freakin' out/Over you," he half-whispers over a lambent, chorded drone at the beginning of "Leftover," sounding more than a little like Billy Corgan minus both melon and collie. Still, the track steers clear of '90s retro pomp, thanks largely to bassist Chris Morrissey and drummer Steve Goold. Both are latter-day examples of a local rhythmic tradition that extends from Happy Apple through Poor Line Condition and Mystery Palace, informed as much by jazz and electronic dance music's trickier subgenres as by rock. Not that the guitarist's hand is stuck in anyone's cliché pot; he spends an economical solo lurching and gliding from limb to virgin limb.

Clearly, much of his adventurousness stems from the company he keeps. Along with Redstart vocalist Wendy Lewis, Apple/Bad Plus drummer Dave King was one of the first Minnesota musicians Mike fell in with after relocating in '95, hungry for unadorned reality. While he'd enjoyed the surreal aspects of living a few doors from both Dio--"I'd see him mowing his lawn from time to time," Mike notes--and comic Bobcat Goldthwait, the guitarist had come to perceive L.A. more as a diversion than home. "I ended up here 'cause it seemed like a good place for me to ground myself and develop," he notes. "The only thing I knew about Minnesota was that it was the land of 10,000 bands."

Along with session and jingle work, playing sideman to the aforementioned musicians brought Mike to a revelation. "I didn't want to end up being a guitar guy," he says, "some sort of Joe Satriani type. I knew I could write songs. I just didn't know how." During what the then-fledgling composer calls "five years of self-embarrassment," he hooked up with the slightly younger Morrissey and Goold. (Mike is 35.) While effusively praising both, he also looks toward even more youthful sources of inspiration. "In the course of maintaining a website," he says, "and loading music on Purevolume, Myspace, and 50 other sites, I've figured out that kids today are really into self-discovery. Now is the most thrilling time for me since I was, like, 18. It's really kinda freaking me out."

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