It's the Wednesday morning after the election, and Bill Mike is beaming.
"Great day, huh?" he says, his dark brown eyes twinkling, as he greets me with a hug in front of a coffee shop in south Minneapolis. We allow ourselves a couple of minutes to buzz about the election before turning on the recorder and getting down to business, but what I learn, as the interview goes on, is that I should have had the tape running from the start. I didn't realize it at first, but the Bill Mike Band's new album, Truce, is really all about searching for Obamatopia.
"I have to work at being more like Barack," Bill Mike admits later in the interview, grinning sheepishly. "He's got that shit down, and it's not an act. I look up to that dude for his ability to actually communicate with people that, deep down, he disagrees with on a primal, spiritual level."
Bill Mike—born William Michel and known as Bill to some, Mike to others ("It's confusing," he laughs)—got his start in the Twin Cities music scene gigging as an improvisational guitar player, working with bands as varied as the Love-Cars, Iffy, and Haley Bonar. Michel's name is often tossed around in discussions of the area's best technical guitar players, but his proficiency at his instrument isn't the only thing that makes him a well-loved and regarded staple of the local scene—unlike so many in his field, Michel is one genuinely compassionate dude.
"I am actually a very shy person," he says, blushing when I press him to talk about himself, but eventually obliging. His new record, he says, is about exploring broader themes like politics, environmentalism, and altruism. "As a writer, I'm not thinking about my little incubator life—that's not where I'm at anymore. It's not about me. It's about community, it's about people. That's where I'm at, lyrically."
Coming from anyone else, it might sound like a lot of hippie-dippy nonsense, but there is a sincerity in both Michel's demeanor and music that makes his quest for peace, love, and understanding believable.
"Instead of being angry, I decided this record was about stepping into the uncomfortable zones of life," he continues. "I listened to Rush Limbaugh for a year, and I still do every day. I watch Fox News, I talk with my sisters, I talk with my relatives, I talk with people in my band who are hyper-conservative, Republican, evangelical people. It's still really fucking hard, man. But I decided that if I were to grow as a human being, I would have to learn how to communicate with people who at one point in time I deemed wrong."
He pauses. "I still struggle with that every day."
On the record, Michel's broader lyrical themes ("Spread out and make some room/Wide open space to talk with you/And figure out what we can do," he sings on closing track "Better News") are given a tighter focus with layers of intricate guitar parts and seamless contributions by bassist Chris Morrissey and drummer Steve Goold. The three work together to create an airtight, forward-moving style of experimental rock that combines jazz riffs and feedback with more traditional styles like punk and pop. Michel says working with Morrissey and Goold came naturally, as the trio clicked the very first time they rehearsed together.
"With Chris and Steve—I've had different people play and collaborate—but with them, it was the first time where I didn't have to say anything. Very few times I'll give a drum beat direction to Steve, or a loose bass line to Chris, but it's very telepathic." He says he starts with an acoustic composition of a song, and then allows Morrissey and Goold to add their own parts, giving the entire songwriting process an organic feel that's palpable on Truce. "When they come in, they complete the song. I just bring in the basic, general, stripped-down Dylan idea. And then it just happens."
THE BILL MIKE BAND will play a CD-release show with Hummingbird, Desdamona, Carnage, and more on FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 14, at the CEDAR CULTURAL CENTER; 612.338.2674