Today’s Feature – August 7 – 8: Mike Mangione

August 8, 2008 at 8:33 pm (Today's Feature)

There’s no doubt in my mind that Mike Mangione, whether performing alone with his guitar or alongside his band, will always find an attentive audience, success and gratification. The man knows how to tell a story. Whether it’s through his music, on a piece of paper or face to face, Mangione has a way of getting his point across. He is defined by stories of a less than helpful music teacher and a more than knowledgeable biology professor; tales that set him on the path into music.

Mangione and his crew have been sharing their story with more and more folks over these past few years, selected as New York Magazine’s pick of the week in September 2007 as well as performing at several high profile festivals; SXSW, Midwest Music Summit, Chicago’s Mobfest, and Milwaukee’s Summerfest to name a few. “Tenebrae,” the follow-up to 2005’s “There and Back” is helping make further waves with what Mike and company calls “chamber pop or soulful acoustic music with classical strings.” To put it simply, the band allows instruments such as the violin and cello do a little more of the talking on this collection, providing “a sound that is not overwhelming and easily digestible to the ear.”

There’s more to the story of “Tenebrae” however. Mangione is proud of the fact the record reflects his live performance, an album with “its faults, cracks and hisses. It is an honest reflection of the artists involved.” If you can’t get out and witness it for yourself, you’ll probably hear their tunes on a bunch of MTV shows like Road Rules, Human Giant, My Super Sweet 16 and The Hills. But really, the band has been touring non-stop for five years. Check their schedule! No doubt they’ll be near you soon (and that includes places outside the U.S. – both Europe and Australia). Get into the XXQ’s to learn a lot more about Mike Mangione.

XXQs: Mike Mangione (PEV): Tell us, how did you first jump into the music industry? Was music always an instant passion for you?

MM: My parents started me out with drums but I wanted to play football growing up. Problem was I didn’t grow up much, about five feet five inches and that’s not a lot to work with. By the end of high school I was honest with myself about my football chances and switched my interests to my music. I went to my choir director and asked how could I do this, how could I be a full time musician. He told me about music theory and teaching, he talked about all the appropriate steps to eventually be a music teacher. I responded “No, I want to be a songwriter and perform”, he replied “I have no idea…” and then he just stared at me in an awkward silence. That was the end of our meeting. From that point on I tried to figure it out on my own and still am today.

PEV: Was there a certain point in your life when you knew that music was going to be a career for you?

MM: Yes, kind of, I have a funny story about this. I attended Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI. It was my freshmen year and I had just declared my major, I was going to study biology. Besides playing music I really enjoyed biology and other sciences. One weekend I was visiting home and decided to go to one of my high school football games. While there I saw my old biology teacher and got really excited to tell him the news, that he inspired a young budding biologist. I will never forget his response when I broke the news that I had just declared my major. He looked at me straight in the eyes, replaced the smile on his face with a very concerned look and said “Mike… why aren’t you doing music”? I was like, “Right… I guess I don’t know I can I?” I never really considered myself a possible candidate for a career in music. The rest of college I worked on songwriting and played out as much as possible. I majored in environmental science and have never worked a day in that field.

PEV: Born in a northern suburb of Chicago and now residing in Milwaukee, what kind of music were you listening to growing up?

MM: I wish I could say some obscure blues or something cool like that… but no. I grew up listening to whatever my brother Tom gave me. A lot of Zeppelin, Hendrix, Dylan, U2, Peter Gabriel, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, I loved all the Seattle stuff. I did choirs growing up as well so I had a deep appreciation for melody and voicings working together for the common good. I think that has been the biggest influence on how we use our instrumentation in the band today. Each instrument in the band is given its space in the music, much like a chamber group or choir.

PEV: Tell us about your creative process. What kind of environment do you have to be in to write music? Is there a certain “method” or “science” to your writing?

MM: I keep it completely loose and non committal. I used to sit down with an idea and feel like I had to finish it, but that kind of pressure comes through in the music. I don’t force anything anymore. If there is an idea I document it. If it is a lyric I write it down and if it is a melody I record it with my phone or if at home with my recorder. I then leave it alone for awhile. These ideas stay somewhere in my head like they are on deck ready to be formed. If a new idea pops up while I am going through my daily motions I compare it to the ones I already have on deck and see if they can work together. If they can great, I go home and piece them together and try to write a song. If nothing happens after they are pieced together, no worries, I walk away and continue on my day. There are so many days to write, if you are receptive to the song it will write itself. Every good song will get written; the bad ones I feel are forced. There are exceptions of course but this is the method I have come to and it keeps me sane. I never feel pressured to write and I have confidence it will come. For the past four years it has not let me down. That theory of receptivity is also one to live by I think, but that is a whole other conversation.

PEV: What can fans expect from a live Mike Mangione performance?

MM: We are a very consistent band. What you hear in a recording is very similar to our live performance. The difference is when its live you get to see the faces we make while doing it. Tom, my brother, dances on stage when he plays guitar. He uses his entire body to add vibrato to his’s a sight indeed. We call his guitar dance the “Tom Stagger”. Seriously check it out on youtube.

PEV: Tell us about your first live performance. How have you changed since that first show to where you are now?

MM: I have decided that I will never see a George Michael Concert again. I was young and the tickets were free… My first performance as a performer coincidently was real bad as well. I was nervous and would apologize for every mistake I made. Now, I don’t get nervous and I pretend the mistakes never happened, the audience never knows. Also, I now know how the performance should feel because I have done it so much. This is helpful for when something is off with the sound or some other condition. I now rely on the feeling of the performance rather than the sounds. I used to freak out if the monitor mix went wrong and it would throw off my entire performance, I would be taken out of it emotionally. Now I can have faith that if it feels like I am singing the right note.I probably am. I also have realized the insignificance of each performance. I used to get nervous because I thought each night was a chance for something really big to happen. I don’t think that way anymore. In the grand scheme of this world and our lives together my performance means very little.

PEV: What can fans expect from your new album “Tenebrae”? How is different from 2005’s “There and Back”?

MM: The songs and artwork is all new. I also thank some new people too. Ha, ha… ok… seriously. There and Back was recorded by my brother Tom and me on all the instruments. Which was a fun musical ego experience but very narrow in vision. Tenebrae started with an idea and we invited others to help fulfill it. It has a broader feel. It is also more melodic because of the strings and Tom’s tonal style of guitar playing. To put it simply there is a vibe/funk all over Tenebrae that I never even knew existed with There and Back. Don’t get me wrong, I like There and Back, but Tenebrae had a little more experience involved in the decision making. It is a more mature album although There and Back does have its moments.

PEV: How is “Tenebrae” album different from others out right now?

MM: There are others out there that are like it, we didn’t reinvent anything here… I just want to get that out of the way. One thing that I hear different from the majority of albums out now is the production of it. Duane Lundy, the producer, Tom and I really wanted to capture a vibe when we recorded, we wanted the album to sound alive. I want to point out there is a difference between sounding live and sounding alive, we wanted it to breath, move and have a scent. I have heard so many bands whose albums sound totally different from their live performance. To me it’s a let down. So many albums sound like they were recorded in outer space, complete silence, complete isolation, but where in the real world of performance is that ever the case. I didn’t want that. We play all the time and take pride in our live performance. We wanted the album to be consistent with the live performance. The album has its faults, cracks and hisses but so do the individuals who made it. It is an honest reflection of the artists involved.

PEV: How would you describe your sound? In a thick and talented industry, how do you expect to stand out?

MM: We call it chamber pop or soulful acoustic music with classical strings. The music is based on simple melodies built by the vocals, guitar, violin and cello. We try to play simply but well, letting each instrument have its space. The result is an abundance of melody and sound that is not overwhelming and easily digestible to the ear.

People who see it really love it. The response to our live performances has been incredible, unlike anything I have seen in all my years on the road. I have had so many people at our shows, even walk up to the stage and say to me “don’t stop playing! you guys are amazing! You guys need to keep going!” It is weird to hear that after a performance from complete strangers. These people who I don’t even know feel comfortable proclaiming this to me while I am worn and tired. It is very encouraging and we need to hear it, it is fuel we can use, but it can be strange sometimes to hear because of the personal sacrifice this lifestyle requires.

An artist sacrifices so many things for their art; their family life, their friends, consistent pay, comfort, sleep, health, responsibilities as a father, uncle or son. These things are sacrificed because they feel called to, in some way or another, their art. But the truth every artists finds is that 99.9% of the population doesn’t give a crap about what they are doing. It has nothing to do with the quality of art, it is just the way the grain goes in our culture. With this being said it becomes very easy to doubt yourself, to doubt what you feel is your calling and to doubt your abilities. Those doubts stain you a bit and can show in different light when you don’t expect it.

To have someone you don’t know come up to you and tell you to keep on going, to keep on sacrificing… is striking. It can be very personal at times. Sometimes you are just flattered and say thank you, other times you want to say “fuck you, this is bullshit. Where are all the others like you? Come to our next show in this town if you feel this way, and sign the email list!” But when it is all said and done we need to remember, as artists, that this is the way of our culture and to have anyone spend time with your art is a blessing. So all we can do to stand out from the rest is simply continue and search for those who will listen.

PEV: What’s one thing we’d be surprised to hear about Mike Mangione?

MM: He is standing right behind you.

PEV: What one word best describes Mike Mangione?

MM: Fuzzy.

PEV: How is life on the road for you? Best and worst parts?

MM: It is very tiring for me. I have been touring non-stop for 5 years, it has been great and I will continue but I am a little tired. Best part is the feedback/affirmation. Worst part is the time away from my wife.

PEV: In all your travels, which has been your favorite city to play (US or International)?

MM: I really like Memphis. I don’t know what it is… Oh, wait, it’s the BBQ. And the people are so friendly. But to be honest we really enjoy most of the cities we go to, that’s one of the reasons why we continue to travel so much. There is one city however we cannot stand but I will not say what it is…

PEV: How have all your friends and family reacted to your success?

MM: When it comes I will let you know. Our friends and family really enjoy the music and have always been very interested and encouraging. They are incredibly supportive and have on many occasions, because we are completely independent, been involved in the funding of some of our musical projects. That is unheard of! We are incredibly fortunate to have such supportive people in our lives. As a result they are invested in what we are doing and take pride in any step forward we make. It is beautiful.

PEV: What can we find you doing in your spare time, aside from playing/writing music?

MM: Sitting with my wife, attending mass, reading a book very, very, very, slowly. So slow in fact that it is probably safe just say reading THE book.

PEV: Having already performed with Jamie Cullum, The Samples, Will Hoge, Jacks Mannequin, Lifehouse, Brian Vander Ark, and Michael McDermott, which artist would be your dream collaboration that you have not had the chance to yet? Why?

MM: Bob Dylan or Daniel Lanois. I completely respect everything they do. Both artists find a way to tastefully incorporate their belief into their music without letting you know about it. Rather than hearing something you walk away understanding something from their music. It’s a very comprehensive experience, a full meal that needs to be digested. I don’t mean to say that their music is heady and intellectual. Sometimes it is of course, but what I mean is that everything in their music is well thought out, lyrically, tonally, rhythmically, totally. Their music is a complete experience and I would love to be apart of that one day.

PEV: Is there an up and coming band or artist you think we should all be looking out for?

MM: Army Of Me from D.C. The lead singer Vince has it all. His head is stuck in a good place and it will result in something special for everybody who listens.

PEV: With the entire new album licensed for use in upcoming seasons of multiple MTV shows such as Road Rules, Human Giant, My Super Sweet 16, and The Hills, how has/will this exposure help catapult the band?

MM: Licensed yes, but they have to use it still. We will see. If they do I would be honored and my wife and I will celebrate. How will it help… I hope we would gain a little exposure, increase our attendance at shows, and maybe pay off some of the bills we got going on. The word “Catapult” scares me a little though, a catapult involves a devastating plunge towards the ground at the end.I like the word “cushions the band” better. I would hope that it would insure our ability to keep on writing songs and make albums.

PEV: Ten years down the road, where will you be?

MM: With my family somewhere writing yet another album. I will have kids God willing.

PEV: So, what is next for Mike Mangione?

MM: In the near future sleep. It is late and I am tired. Down the line a little, we are touring the US, going to Australia in July then returning to the US. We will then hit Europe in January. Then the new album begins and this will start all over again. Any good song ideas?

For more information on Mike Mangione, check out


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