INTRODUCING: Mike Evin – Interview & Artist Profile
MIKE EVIN opens for BNL in Detroit (March 3) and Des Moines (May 10) and Get Barenaked caught up with the Toronto-based musician for an in-depth interview ahead of the shows.
If you’re not acquainted with Mike Evin yet, you’re missing out – big time. Born in Montreal and now a Toronto citizen, the affable multi-instrumentalist will open up for BNL on two dates of their upcoming US shows. Many fans will be familiar with Evin from his memorable performances on-board BNL’s Ships and Dip cruises. For the uninitiated though, delving through Evin’s back catalogue is a joyous experience – he crafts catchy, piano-led tunes reminiscent of Ben Folds, Jukebox The Ghost or Billy Joel.
Mike kindly took time out of working on his upcoming album to chat to Get Barenaked about his music, his long-standing friendship with the guys in BNL, and even the perks of squash…
As bit of background and introduction to you and your sound – who are your influences and how would you describe your music?
My influences have evolved over the years, but it started off with Billy Joel and Elton John – and even before that, The Bee Gees were probably the first band that I was really into. The Beach Boys have been a constant ever since I was really young – I just kept getting deeper and deeper into their music as I got older. I would say the Beach Boys are one of my favourite bands.
Can you tell us more about how your songwriting has developed from I’ll Bring The Stereo (2005 album) right up until Life as a Lover? (most recent release, 2015)
I’d say one of the main things that has evolved is I’ve gotten more personal and more honest; just more direct and more vulnerable in my songwriting. I think back in the days of I’ll Bring The Stereo, I was writing a lot from the point of view of other characters. It’s a good way to express yourself that way – a lot of my favourite songwriters like Randy Newman do that really well, and he was definitely a big influence on me.
As I got older and started to experience more serious relationships of my own, I felt the need to be more vulnerable and express more of myself in more of a direct way in my songwriting. I think if someone listens to I’ll Bring The Stereo and then listens to my last album Life as a Lover, they’ll notice that there’s a big shift in terms of more of the songs are more personal and I’m talking more about myself, as opposed to talking about another character.
What’s apparent to me is that rawness in the lyrical content but also the rawness of the music, I feel like I’ll Bring The Stereo is quite polished and sophisticated in its arrangement in places…
What I’m really happy about is that each one of my albums is very distinct musically. I’ll Bring The Stereo is pretty sophisticated and there’s lots going on; it’s very lush, lots of layers to it. Then there’s an album like Good Watermelon which is very raw. I wouldn’t say it’s been a straight path of continuously getting more and more raw, because I’d say since Good Watermelon I’ve gone back to bringing back more lushness – or a marriage of the two worlds, so to speak. So an album like Life as a Lover has a bit of rawness but it also has a bit more of a polished sound than the previous albums.
“Have I Ever Loved?” from Mike’s latest full-length album, Life as a Lover
I’m constantly trying to play with that – I think the rawness is a big part of who I am too, and when someone sees me play live it’s very spontaneous at times and there’s that rawness. I think I’ll Bring The Stereo has that – in fact, all of the vocals on that are done live with the band and I actually had a cold when I sang those vocals – which I think does add an energy to them. We did most of that live – we did the guitars, bass, drums and vocals all live – we kept going and adding more stuff afterwards, but it definitely retains a lot of that energy.
I’m sure there’s a Ben Kweller album that was recorded on-the-floor live; and it has the energy that you really pick up on as a listener…
Yeah, On My Way.
So from across those releases, what do you feel are your ‘greatest hits’ – the songs you’re most proud of across the catalogue?
Some of my favourites – and the songs I’m most proud of – might not be some other people’s favourites, but I guess songs like “Stripper In My Car” and “Wait for The Tea to Steep” are definitely a lot of people’s favourites and I still play them at every show. From Good Watermelon, well – the song “Good Watermelon” has definitely stuck around.
It’s interesting to see what songs stand the test of time and which songs I still feel comfortable singing, and which songs still hold up in terms of other people asking for them. So I’d say “Good Watermelon”, “Sweet Emma’s Group” from Do You Feel The World? – I still play that at pretty much every show and that’s become something of a “Mike Evin classic”, if you can say that.
I’d be more interested to hear what other people feel are my hits, because sometimes I’m just too close to it. I dunno – what are some of your favourites?
I feel invested in the early stuff because that’s when I first came to know you and your music – so like you’ve said, “Stripper In My Car”, “Danish Bullies” is a great song, “Soapbox Racer”… I’m aware that I’m now listing songs off I’ll Bring The Stereo here…!
Well, that album has a special quality to it – the songs have a special vitality to them; not to say that my later songs don’t have that, but there’s certainly an innocence to those songs and I don’t know if I’ve been able to keep that.
Mike Evin performs “Stripper In My Car” with the Creeggans and Tyler Stewart on board Ships and Dip in 2009
I love “Great Pop Song” as well – and I seem to remember you telling a story on the cruise that it had been inspired by, as we just mentioned, Ben Kweller…
Yeah, it was “I Gotta Move“, a song off the self-titled album. I remember hearing that song and I was obsessed with it for a few weeks – and I just had to write about that.
Conversely from the previous question – you mention that there are songs that you play at every show – and I know from hearing interviews with BNL that they feel that way about “Million Dollars” and “One Week” – are there songs that you feel you’ve outgrown or maybe shy away from now?
Well, I don’t have the same kind of pressure to play songs of mine the way those guys have because I haven’t had that kind of success yet. But I’d say certain songs, like “Stripper” – sometimes it’s hard to relate to a song like that – but I’ve found a way back to them. Maybe a song like “Soapbox Racer” I feel I’ve outgrown that a bit, and I don’t play that as much. A song like “We Should Dance” – it’s just a bit too trite, a bit too light, a bit too innocent, but I play that from time to time.
I hardly play any songs off the EP I released Let’s Slow It Down which was in between I’ll Bring The Stereo and Good Watermelon – I find I never play those songs. I don’t know what it is, it’s hard to relate to those songs I guess.
I was going to ask what you do outside of music to entertain yourself – and from your twitter bio I saw that you’re a squash player. I’m a squash player too – I’m terrible, but I love it!
My friend and I are both into squash and just yesterday he got tickets for this pro match that was happening in Toronto, an exhibition match. We got to see, in a small, intimate setting, the number two player in the whole world: Karim Gawad from Egypt – and he was playing someone from Australia who’s number 17 – Cameron Pilley. There must’ve been about 20 people watching in this small setting. We were like, five feet away from the court – it was incredible. It’s like seeing your favourite musician in a really small club – I guess it’s similar to that.
…and you’re watching thinking “That is how it’s done!”
Oh yeah! It was so amazing. Watching amazing squash players I feel is like watching an amazing musician play.
I have a friend who I play regularly and he’s really tall – and I’m really rather short – and it makes a big difference on the court. I’m quite nimble, but he’s like Stretch Armstrong, every single shot I play – he’s just there!
Yeah but Liam, the guy who won yesterday – the number two player – he was much shorter than the other guy…
Oh damn, so I’ve got no excuses then!
So what other stuff do you do outside of music to keep happy and entertained?
I love watching documentary films. There’s a movie theater in Toronto that just plays documentary films and I take myself there once a week if I can – to see all kinds of subjects. It really fills me up and inspires me. I get to learn a bit more about the world that way.
I love travelling; any chance I have to travel and experience another place – and I’m lucky that music enables me to do that. I love outdoor stuff – going on hikes; my brothers and I go on canoe trips and cross-country ski trips. I love getting the heart going that way.
Mike and BNL
To take it back to the start, how did the relationship with the band start – when did you first meet and what impressions of the band did you have?
Growing up as a teenager, I was aware of their music and I remember the first time I heard them was “Enid” on the radio back in ’92 or ’93. I remember they stood out to me, they were unique and quirky with catchy, well-crafted pop music.
The definition of quirky
Fast-forward to 2001 – I’d just released my first album The January Muse and a friend of mine was in a few classes with Andy Creeggan in Montreal – because after Andy left BNL, he went back to school. My friend thought that Andy would like my music so he gave him a copy of my album. I got an email from Andy saying that he really liked my music and we were ‘kindred spirits’. I went to listen to the Brothers Creeggan and I really fell in love with their music – they’re such beautiful musicians.
Andy and I kept in touch through email for a while, then eventually I worked up the nerve to ask him if I could open up for Brothers Creeggan sometime – and he said “Let’s meet up first in person and take it from there”. We met up, one thing led to another, we kept in touch – and eventually I got the chance to open up for Brothers Creeggan in Ottawa for one show. That’s when I met Jim for the first time and I guess Jim really liked my music as well; it kept growing organically and steadily from there.
I asked Andy if he would produce a demo of a few songs for me – songs that would eventually end up on I’ll Bring The Stereo – but these were early versions. Andy produced them and we got Jim to play bass, so that was a chance to work with Jim some more. Eventually, I wanted to make more demos and I asked Jim if he’d play on the demos. He said “You know what, I don’t wanna make demos and just be a bass player – I want to produce an album for you and I want to make a whole album, so let’s do it!” – and that became I’ll Bring The Stereo.
Through making that album, I met Tyler and Kevin and it grew steadily from there; meeting the rest of the guys in the band at certain shows.
It really blossomed when they asked me to come and do Ships and Dip in 2009.
It’s been so amazing to be able to see those guys do what they do; they’re amazing musicians, they write amazing songs and they put on really great live shows. They’re top-notch live performers. So to get a chance to be around that – I read stories about, back in the day, the Jackson 5 going on tour with James Brown or something, and being able to see these amazing performers perform night after night and learn from them by watching them. I feel it’s the same with me being able to watch Barenaked Ladies perform. I learn so much about crafting a live show and engaging with an audience in an honest way.
That was really apparent to me the first time I watched you, the way that you held the crowd – on the Ships and Dip cruise we did a conga around the ship to “Good Watermelon” – and honestly, it was a highlight of the cruise because it was so spontaneous and joyous – and it was obvious to me that it was a shared sensibility of entertaining a crowd and being on their side…
…and connecting with people! Meeting halfway so you share the experience together. I remember, for me, it really crystalised at one show I was doing; I was playing solo in this bar and I realised “Oh my god, there’s all these people in this bar and we can really enjoy sharing a heightened experience together if we’re able to come together in a certain way”. Whether that’s through singing something together, it hit home that it’s a big part of my job to bring the audience in that way, so we can share something together.
Along with the cruises, what have been some of your favourite moments with BNL?
When they were recording Silverball, I went to hang out at the studio one day and Kevin wasn’t there – I think he was recovering from treatment. They were listening to mixes and realised that one song wasn’t finished yet, and they needed some kind of solo. They convinced me to put down a keyboard solo. It’s a song that didn’t make it on the final album, one of the bonus tracks – “Counting Down”. There’s a wurlitzer solo and they were directing me – saying “Be more crazy in this part!” There was a bit of pressure, but it was really cool to be a part of their recording in that way.
So now with the shows coming up, was that a case again of you mustering the nerve to ask or did they invite you?
A combination of the two! You have to be a bit pushy sometimes. I would reach out and say “I’d love to open up for you guys sometime soon”, so I did, and they got back saying we’d love to have you for these couple of shows.
Amazing. Feel free to bring the party over to the UK at some point – I know there’s lots of Brits who were on-board the ship who would love that…
I would love to, it’s definitely one of my big goals for the next couple of years.
Coming soon from Mike…
With the new material – how can fans support you as this new album shapes up?
I’ve launched a Pledgemusic campaign and they can support me there. It’s about bringing the fans into my process and sharing something with them. It’s a Crowdfunding campaign so if they want to preorder the album, there will be many different ways they can do that – either by itself or with some special item or experience. There will be lots of unique and one-of-a-kind personal incentives – it’s gonna be a really special album, I feel.
What can people expect from the album?
I think I’m a bit more confident in terms of what I’m about – I’m always getting a bit more confident as I go on, and I think I have a stronger vision creatively this time around. It’s going to be more of what I’ve been doing, but a crazier version of everything I’ve done.
We’ve already got one song that’s done – and it’s just three minutes long, but it takes you on this big journey; there’s strings, it really builds up, so musically it’s gonna be all-out! When necessary, it’ll be all-out.
I think the songs so far – I still need to write a bunch more songs for this album – but so far it’s stuff that’s a lot more personal, some stuff that’s a bit more intense as well. But I’m constantly trying to simplify and distill my songwriting so it’s more direct; trying not to waste words and trying not to waste melodies either – getting melodies and simple, as singable and memorable as possible.
Hopefully I’m always getting better at that! I really want to have great songs – that will be the focus.
Finally, for a bit of fun – Get Barenaked asked Mike to select a few personal favourites – with three being the magic number. Here are his choices…
1⃣ I’ll start with “On The Lookout” – a Jim Creeggan song, I love that song.
2⃣ “Odds Are” – when I heard that I knew it was a special song.
3⃣ And I’m gonna say “Jane” – when I heard that as a teenager I fell in love with that song.
So there’s a lot of nostalgia based around that song?
Yeah – and also when I first started hanging around with Andy he told me that he was really proud of his contribution to that song with the hammered dulcimer.
Songs to get into Mike Evin
1⃣ “Have I Ever Loved?”
2⃣ “Sweet Emma’s Group”
3⃣ and … man, this is tough! A third one – I’m gonna go back to I’ll Bring The Stereo and say “Stripper In My Car”. That’s some variety there.
Favourite songs by anyone
I’m up for the challenge! OK, here goes.
1⃣ “Saturday in the Park” by Chicago.
2⃣ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” by the Beach Boys.
3⃣ And “Just My Imagination” by The Temptations.
I think if anyone would ask me that, it would change on a weekly basis!
No, this is me in this moment, so don’t worry about it!
With a disclaimer that there’s still so many places I’d like to visit – so if I’ve left any out it’s probably because I haven’t been there yet:
1⃣ I’d say New York City.
2⃣ New Orleans.
3⃣ And third city – that’s a good question – Jerusalem.
Interview by Liam McKinnon for Get Barenaked — A huge thanks to Mike for taking the time to speak to chat! Go and smash it on those two shows, Mike!
- Mike’s website
- Follow Mike on Twitter
- Mike’s Facebook
- Support Mike by visiting his Pledgemusic page for the new album