New Orleans music—be it brass bands or no-wave punk—is dominated by loud, eccentric personalities. We know ‘em, we love ‘em. And while Micah McKee might not exactly fit the mold of such mythic intensity, he still represents a critical chapter—practically an entire generation—of our city’s culture. Born and raised in New Orleans, McKee has played every club near and dear to us all: Circle Bar and Saturn Bar (where he hosted a weekly gathering of like-minded troubadours, “Best Sunday Ever,” for years), Blue Nile, One Eyed Jack’s—even going as far back as the Mermaid Lounge, a beloved Warehouse District hole-in-the-wall that closed in 2004. His resume of bands has practically defined indie rock in New Orleans over the past two decades and should be familiar to anyone who ever set foot in a club or took in a gaggle of show fliers posted on a light pole (back when that kind of thing was allowed): Silent Cinema, Empress Hotel, Little Maker, Bāby Grand, classics cover band The Essentials, just to name a handful. Each group has been unique in its own right but McKee’s input has imbued them all with influences ranging from The Band to Aretha Franklin, the Kinks to Steely Dan—as well as an earnest, honest, joyous predisposition that can sometimes feel out of step with the chaotic, often nihilistic beat of New Orleans music in general.
You might think such a sensitive soul would wilt under pandemic conditions. Shuttered clubs, canceled events, and the perils of in-person band practices—as well as a neurological condition he’s still working through daily—has kept McKee cut off from the very lifeblood that’s sustained him throughout the years. But despite these setbacks McKee has thrived under the pressure, as evidenced by his latest release, a lush reverb-drenched escape of an album, and his first as a solo artist (as Micah McKee & The Lonesome Wild). Aptly titled ABUNDANCES, these tracks showcase an artist who could easily be greedy for more, but seems to have found that rare island of contentment in this turbulent town. He’s also managed to sneak in a podcast, American 100, a casual yet informative dive into the greatest American pop hits of the last half-plus century.
I talked to McKee over Zoom on a frigid Mardi Gras weekend about his history and evolution as an artist, and some of the people and places that have gotten him to where he is today. And while it was certainly a lot of fun to dig deep into his past, our long conversation left me convinced that though McKee already has a prolific catalogue and a lifetime’s worth of live performance behind him, it feels like he’s only getting started.
What would you be getting into this Mardi Gras weekend if we weren’t on lockdown?
Oh boy, ummm… Maybe going to R Bar? Maybe if Red‘s got his crawfish going on Friday, maybe I would’ve done that. Maybe Circle Bar, you know? That’d be nice.
Are you a gigging musician during Mardi Gras? Is that a busy time for you, traditionally?
Sometimes. The Essentials—the Motown group that I’m in—we do Krewe du Vieux at Blue Nile every year. And I’ve marched in Tucks before, so I like to be a part of the parades. I marched with Sunshine Brass Band a couple years in a row. So yeah, I like to get into Mardi Gras. I love Mardi Gras. It’s my favorite holiday; it’s my favorite time of year. I mean, nothing beats it. I’ve kinda toned it down on parades though, you know? I pretty much sit out Lundi Gras night and just get a good night’s rest so I can get up in the morning on Tuesday. But, you know, I don’t really like gigging during Mardi Gras. It’s not a great logistical situation.
[laughs] But it’s really fun, man. It’s really fun. And I feel like this time has put a lot of things into perspective, because a lot of the complaints that you normally have about everyday life, the small things like, “I don’t want to load my amp into this club,” or “I don’t want to get out late from this gig”—it all seems so trivial now. I’d do anything to load into a two-story high club, you know what I’m saying?
Yeah, for sure. It makes sense that you would have that feeling about Mardi Gras because you are born and raised here. So the classic question that I gotta lead off with is, where’d you go to school?
I went to Ben Franklin, baby! I went to Ben Franklin High School and I went to Audubon Montessori for elementary—not Audubon Charter School. It was Audubon Montessori back when I went [there].
Right, and you graduated in 2002, right?
Yeah, I did. I was lucky to go to that school. It was a pretty liberal school. I’m still friends with a lot of the folks I went to school with… it was a cultured place to go to high school.
What kind of person were you in high school? What kind of scenes did you find yourself in?
Man, I was a nerd. I was in chess club, I was on the chess team. I brought my guitar and played in the courtyard during lunch breaks. I was into sci-fi. I was in the anti-war society. I was a really dorky kid. I was friends with a lot of folks that I thought were really cool because they had similar dorky interests. I was into Star Trek, superheroes… But I was also a musician so I played in the high school bands and garage bands and stuff like that.
When did you start playing music?
I started playing around freshman year of high school and that started with bringing my guitar to school and playing on lunch breaks. I still can’t believe I did that.
What were you playing?
I was playing covers. I remember Red Hot Chili Peppers was pretty popular. I was into The Pixies so I played The Pixies. Looking back, that’s really cool, like, being into The Pixies when you’re 13. I was into The Smiths so I tried to play some Smiths songs. I had Louder Than Bombs on CD. I was into James Taylor; I was into a lot of ‘70s soft rock. Styx Greatest Hits was always in my CD player on the way to school.
The ‘70s thing is odd for a high school kid, I think, in the early 2000s.
It is, because my dad was a big musical influence on me. My dad’s a musician and he had records, so that’s how I got into playing music. My first songbook was James Taylor, the “Best Of” songbook, so that was the first music that I learned how to play, so that was why I played that stuff.
That checks out if you think about the music you play.
It absolutely does. It has never changed. [laughs]
So you’ve been in a lot of bands since high school and I’m curious, are you able to list them all?
Yeah, let me go for the first one. The first one was Wednesday Night Romeo. Super emo-sounding band.
A little bit.
Very. Right down the lane. That was the first one. And then Silent Cinema, and that was right after high school.
Yeah, that was sort of pre-Katrina and middle of Katrina. I came across this YouTube video of Silent Cinema playing “Good Morning Arkansas” in September 2005. Do you remember that performance?
Like it was yesterday. That was like the formative moment of my musical career, in a way. I don’t think I’d ever played on television before that. And we drove non-stop from New Orleans and we were headed to Chicago and we decided to stop in Little Rock because we had a friend there.
It was evacuation. We got out about a day, two days before it hit, and we got out because Margaret Orr told us, get out. Margaret Orr saved my life. And, so we got out, I packed a guitar, a bottle of whiskey, and… our friend was like, “Yo, I have a friend who works at the news downtown and she wants you guys to come and play a few songs on the air.” So we got there, and it was maybe 7 in the morning, and I was 21, so I had never been up that early, since I was in high school… we were drinking real heavily back then. We were hungover as hell, got up, went to the studio. They had Red Bulls for us. And at that time… I hadn’t heard from my family, I hadn’t heard from anyone in New Orleans. It was like the 504 area code was just busy.
It’s an interesting video to me because the performance sounds great, but y’all look wrecked!
Oh, dude. Yeah, we were. We had been drinking all night and we drove all day, drank all night and then went right into that. That’s the Katrina hangover that you’re looking at.
Right, if someone asked me what the middle of Katrina evacuation was like, I would show them that video because you just got that look in your eye, you know?
Totally! It’s like, you lost pretty much everything, you don’t know what’s there, you don’t know what’s not there, and what we had with us was all we had—the guitars, our instruments. I was a wreck, man. But I look fondly back on that time because it shaped my outlook. It shaped who I am now.
I know there’s a lot of differences, but I feel like anyone who lived through Katrina and is living through COVID right now is seeing some sort of rhyming patterns in this. Do you feel that way at all?
Yeah, man. For sure. I call this the second apocalypse that I’ve lived through. Katrina, for me personally, prepared me for this time. As soon as I knew COVID was coming, I was like, “Awww here we go. Get your provisions on, get whatever government assistance you’re gonna need, get it all worked out, make sure you’ve got a working computer.” I was pretty prepared, honestly, for this. I mean, as prepared as you could be, right? None of us have lived through a pandemic before. But going through something like Katrina where it changed the face of the city, and it put the city into a different context all together, I was ready for something like this, and it was sadly about time, you know? We skated through a lot. We missed a lot of apocalypses since then.
Yeah. I agree.
So yeah, it definitely triggers you a little bit but, it’s different. At the very least, we still have each other. A lot of folks are still here. I think that’s a big difference. During Katrina, there was this huge exodus where people left, and a lot of people didn’t come back. So it’s different. We’re kind of sitting on our thumbs waiting to get back to a city that we’re already in.
Right, it’s like a virtual evacuation.
Totally! It’s like at any moment now we can kind of go back to New Orleans reality, and we’re already sitting here waiting for it. We’re not in New York or Chicago or Little Rock waiting.
So we were going through your bands…
Oh yeah, so, Silent Cinema. After that it’s probably Empress Hotel.
Which is one of the greatest New Orleans band names ever, if only just because every time you drive down Esplanade Avenue, it’s like—
Oh, you just see it… So, me and Ryan Rogers, who started that band, wrote these songs in his apartment, and we demoed the songs on his laptop, and we would spend all day subsisting on orange soda and writing. And at the end of the day we’d get in the truck and go driving around listening to the songs. And I remember passing Empress Hotel, and I was like, “Man, that’s a beautiful name. It’s a really good name.” And we had gone through a bunch of band names, but that was the one that stuck. We ripped the magnetic sign off of their laundry truck and put it on our tour van. So we already had built-in marketing… I still love that band. It has a special place in my heart. Killer lineup, killer musicians.
Who was in that band?
Ryan Rogers, Eric Rogers, Julie Williams, Leo DeJesus for a time. Jack Clark was in it, Patrick Hodgkins… I mean, we’ve had some guests over time too: Anthony Cuccia came in, Julie Odell came in—she played Jazz Fest with us. And of course Eric. Eric is just like, the greatest, you know?
Yeah, he’s amazing. That was a fun little pop band and a great band name. Unfortunately, kind of hard to Google, because there are a couple different Empress Hotels around the country and if you Google Empress Hotel, you’re probably gonna get the one down here or the one in Victoria, Canada. And those are the two big ones, and then you get our band.
Empress Hotel at One Eyed Jacks, 2010. Left to Right: Ryan Rogers, Eric Rogers, Micah McKee, Patrick Hodgkins, Julie Williams (photo by Josh Brasted)
Then after Empress Hotel?
After that, around that same time, I jumped into The Essentials, which was the ‘60s Motown 10-piece band.
That’s a wedding band, right? That’s how you’d describe it?
Well, it is now. It started as this crazy idea that Thom Haulard and Luke Hudleston had, and they wanted to put together a band that just covered the classics. And the wedding thing was, as I understand, kind of secondary to the goal. But we were like, “We got all these songs, a huge songbook, a 10-piece band…” It made sense to become a wedding band, a special event band. So the cool thing about that band is that we’ll play weddings and then turn around and every now and then play at Circle Bar or Blue Nile.
And when you say Classics—
‘60s Motown and rock and soul. Stevie, Marvin, Diana Ross, Brenton Wood, some Louisiana soul in there, Edwin Starr, Al Green… just the greatest music ever written. And that band is a huge departure for me, vocally. I didn’t do that kind of thing when I came into the band. At first, when I was asked to join the band, I was like, “Are you crazy? There are soul singers out there that do this, you know?” But they believed in me and I’m happy I made the decision to join that band, because I’ve been in it for 10 years now.
The whole point of that band is to be in a live setting, so obviously y’all are probably on some kind of hiatus. But I was curious if you were considering that band active right now.
Yeah, we’re definitely active. I mean basically any band that I have going on is still around. It’s hard to collaborate, but yeah, we’re definitely active. We still have beaucoup contracts open. [laughs] We’ve got weddings to play, you know what I mean?
Is that a band where y’all take requests?
We do. You can actually send us requests and we’ll learn them ahead of time. We don’t really do requests on the spot unless we know the song. And it’s funny because when you’re in a wedding group, people tend to take their liberties with what they think you can do. They’ll hear you playing ‘60s soul, but then they’ll want you to play “Stairway…” Someone will come up and ask you to play Led Zeppelin. You’re like, “Dude, what about this says I do Led Zeppelin? At all?”
What if it’s the father of the bride or something like that?
It’s usually something like that, or you’ll have somebody whose little cousin can play “Stairway” on guitar and he wants to come up and see if you can back him up. And then you tell him you can’t and they’re just heartbroken.
That band must be a huge departure from a band like Empress Hotel or something where that’s your band, you set the terms. But if you’re a wedding band and somebody comes up and asks for you to play “Stairway to Heaven” or wants their little niece to jump in, I’m sure you have to be diplomatic about it.
Oh yeah… There’s a little bit of your heart that breaks a little bit, right? When you can’t do something for your audience. And I wish I could. I wish I could just break right into it, you know? [laughs] People think if you play in a band you’re a magician. They think you can do whatever you want, which is kind of the great thing about being in a band, until you can’t pull it off.
You said that being in The Essentials you had to re-approach your voice. If I think back on some of your earlier bands, you did have more of a growl, wouldn’t you say?
Yeah, definitely. Honestly the thing that got me away from that style was joining Empress Hotel because that band was more of a pop band. And it was very much in the vein of Steely Dan and Hall & Oates. That band was all about being smooth. And in that group is where I learned to adjust my voice to be a little smoother. And so I took that and applied it to The Essentials. And The Essentials has taught me so many valuable lessons about how to sing. You learn a lot when the things that you’re singing are Marvin Gaye as opposed to Elliott Smith.
What’s something that would be different?
Rock music is about how you sound. It’s grittier, it’s rougher, it’s tougher, and it’s less about your tone and more about your expression. But soul music is inspired by gospel; and gospel, your tone has to be divine. It has to approach divinity. And that is a different angle completely than singing rock music, which is, in a lot of ways, about the absence of the divine. It’s about the humanity, you know? You’re listening to Jackie Wilson, right? “Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher,” which is basically a gospel song. It’s a love song but it’s a gospel song. You can’t sing that the way Kurt Cobain or Frank Black would sing that, you know what I mean? It would become a different song. So it taught me about reaching different heights with my voice, heights that I didn’t think that I could actually achieve until I actually tried, because I never tried it!
I heard a funny story about you once, that Bryan Funck (during your growl, throaty phase) asked how you achieved such a voice. I think your answer was, “I smoke a lot of cigarettes.”
I did! And I did smoke a lot of cigarettes, which was bad for my voice.
Well it’s good for rock guy voice.
Yeah, for gospel or soul? No way. I don’t smoke anymore, which, I’m very thankful. But I’m not sure how true that was either. I mean, I know I was smoking a lot and drinking a lot, but I think I was just being lazy. I knew I was good at this particular skill and I knew that other artists like Tom Waits were really, really good at it too and it worked for them. So I was like, “Hell, this comes naturally to me, so I might as well try it.” But it started to turn into a gimmick, and I’m glad I no longer engage in that gimmick. I’m glad I’ve had other bands like Empress Hotel and The Essentials take me out of that.
So we’ve gotten up as far as The Essentials, but I think we still have a few more bands to go!
Well, around the same time as The Essentials and Empress Hotel is Little Maker, which is probably the most creative control I ever had in a band, for better and worse. Little Maker’s my baby. We played Jazz Fest, and every week for seven years we played at Blue Nile on stage on Thursdays. That band is still amazing to me and at some point we’ll do a third record.
Was Little Maker the first band of yours that played Jazz Fest?
No, I think Empress Hotel was the first band that played Jazz Fest. We played the Acura stage. I like to say we opened up for Tom Petty… We played at like 10 in the morning or something like that. We watched all the people bust down the gate to run to get their little spot, you know? And then we started playing.
The running of the boomers.
[laughs] Yeah, it was great, I’ve never seen anything like it. But yeah, Little Maker and then Bāby Grand is the current project that I’ve been working with. That is more of a collaborative effort. That’s Rose Cangelosi, Chris Nicotera, Michaela Brown, Bryan Gottshall, and Rebecca Crenshaw. And that band is amazing because the idea behind this band is kind of an answer to ‘70s rock, the stuff that I grew up listening to. I finally got the personnel that was appropriate for a project like this: multiple singers, Fleetwood Mac-esque harmonies. We recorded an EP last year, and we were about to release it and then COVID, so we’re sitting on it right now.
“Best Sunday Ever” at the Saturn Bar, 2011. Left to Right: Loren Murrell, Jared Marcell, Micah McKee, Rebecca Crenshaw, Luke Hudleston (photo by Josh Brasted)
There’s all that and then of course, there’s your solo work.
Yeah, man. During that whole time, I’ve always been a solo musician and hadn’t really had the impetus to record a solo album until now. This record that’s out right now is a culmination of the solo work that I had been working on for a few years, just being at the Circle Bar and playing every Sunday.
Wow, 20 years in the making.
Which is wild, man. Totally wild. I don’t really like having to play all the instruments, [laughs] like, at all. So that’s why I never really did it. But where there is necessity, there’s stuff like this.
The record label that’s putting this out, Campers’ Rule, they’re based out of Brooklyn and they were originally supposed to put out the Bāby Grand EP on cassette and, like I said, we’re sitting on that right now until we can actually play live. But I’m still really tight with that label… I like cassettes. I loved making mixtapes back in the day; I think a lot of folks did. And cassettes and vinyl make me feel like I’m part of the process. I have something physical, something tangible to hold on to. And I think that’s especially really important right now. Where everything is kind of in the cloud, you know? Everything you do is in the ether or on a screen. So I had this idea where it’d be this cool moment in time to have people take out time and, if they have a tape player, to get away from the screen for a while and pop the tape in.
You basically have a city’s worth of musicians to call on. So why these two collaborators?
The first one, Myles Weeks, he’s one of the greatest rhythmic minds out there, and the single, “Someone Lost the Map”… I was like, “I just know that there is something missing from this song, and it’s not just a bass line, it’s his bass line.” So I called him up. He elevated that song to the next level. And Rose Cangelosi, who plays with me in Bāby Grand, is one of my musical idols. She’s got her hands in a lot of different projects, a lot of different pots, and she’s great in all of them.
And you worked virtually?
Yeah, totally—which worked out better than I thought it would. And also it was really fun because, usually when you’re in the studio with a musician, you’re kinda standing over their shoulder and you’re like, [whiny voice] “Can you do this???” It was great to not do that, and just be like, “Yo, y’all take this, listen to it, and run with it.”
Yeah, it can be kind of freeing to not be the micromanager.
Big time! And at that point, I had finished the record. So I was done, man. I was also going through a neurological condition at the time of mixing and re-listening to this album, so I just wanted to be done with it. I wanted to be done with the creative process, because I’d been working on that album for a few months at that point.
What’s your setup? Is it Pro Tools or something else?
It’s Logic. The record is a combination of electronic drums and random percussion. So I’ve got a floor tom, I’ve got a couple tambourines, I’ve got some shakers, got some pill bottles. [shakes them]
Nice, that’s great!
I got all kinds of stuff around here. As soon as the pandemic hit, I spent a bunch of time amassing a bunch of gear and adding to the gear I already had… It’s a pretty simple bedroom set-up with a desk. My normal pandemic day is: get up in the morning, make some coffee and breakfast, and sit at the desk and see what kind of ideas come to me. That’s pretty much my day, and it has been for almost a year now.
Are you a daytime recorder? Nighttime? Both?
Daytime recording and then nighttime mixing and getting it all to sound the way I want it to sound, where I can kind of distance myself from it, maybe roll a joint and separate from it a little bit. But daytime is great for coming up with the song itself. And putting down the idea at nighttime is really good for mixing, especially because I got neighbors too, so nighttime is good for MIDI stuff, synthesizers, and mixing.
There’s the trope, something like “Write drunk, edit sober” or just that general idea of: you write in one state of mind, but then you edit in another.
Absolutely, man! Yeah, editing is a nighttime thing for me. ‘Cause that’s a quiet thing.
Let’s talk about a couple of songs real quick. “Your Favorite Beatle”—is that like an ice breaker date song?
It totally is, man. It kind of came from the idea that people can’t really do that right now, right? You’re used to going on a date and meeting up with someone and having these conversations. And that’s why the chorus is, “I’m trying to remember what I love,” like just trying to remember the old world. And trying to get a sense of normalcy again.
Is that a question you’ve used on a date before?
Always! I gotta know.
And so what does that tell you? Who is your favorite Beatle?
My favorite Beatle is George Harrison. So if someone says George Harrison’s their favorite Beatle, I know they’re probably pretty groovy.
What if they say McCartney?
If they say McCartney, that’s fine. That’s fine. If they say John Lennon, then they probably got some problems.
That would be my answer!
Oh that’s… you got some problems then. [laughs]
Maybe, maybe. “Someone Lost the Map”—To me, there’s a Wu-Tang influence there, I don’t know if it’s the pianos or the beat. Would that be accurate?
That wasn’t directly Wu-Tang, but I wanted to make a hip-hop track that had samples in it and detuned piano and it’s just a sound that I’ve liked. If anything I was channeling MF Doom on that track, from the Madvillain record… That’s actually one of the few songs that’s directly a COVID-related song, like basically being at this point where we have no idea where we’re going. We had this general idea that four weeks from now we’ll be doing this and two months from now we’ll be doing [that]. And at this point in the journey, the map is just thrown out the window, you know?
I think perhaps the most surprising track on the album is your cover of “Don’t Be Cruel,” which is wild.
Oh, yeah, man. The way that happened was I was recording an Elvis cover album. And that song, that version of it just felt right on the album. It felt like a good beginning-of-side-two track.
There’s something to me that’s sneakily subversive about your cover for a lot of reasons. One, of course, being sonically. It almost takes you a minute to be like, oh, that’s “Don’t Be Cruel.”
Yeah, totally. I felt like it would be a cool idea to give it almost a Beatles-y kinda feel to it, at least to the vocals, the tremolo on the vocals. And also, the beat and the bass kind of are inspired by ‘90s chillwave.
Yeah, I would call it a chillwave version.
Yeah, totally. Basically, I wanted to cover Elvis in a way that he would never ever play a song, right?
Mission accomplished in that regard. The history of Elvis has become a lot more complicated through the years. You said you were working on Elvis covers so I guess one question I had for you is if you were an Elvis fan?
I am, yeah. I’m a really big Elvis fan. And I know that’s complicated. But music is complicated, and Elvis is a necessary part of our history as musicians. And not just history, but creatively. I channel Elvis in terms of what he was able to bring into pop music, which is nuance, right? Elvis wasn’t the writer of these songs. He reinterpreted these songs, and that’s the thing I wanted to do for his music. I wanted to reinterpret Elvis. People talk about Elvis taking from the Black community. And being a Black musician, I wanted to take Elvis’ music back from him, in a way.
Yeah, I think you could read it that way. Almost like the culture coming full circle with your cover.
Yeah, absolutely. And his music is timeless in that way. It just kind of tells me that his music belongs to everybody. And it’s not just him. He was a conduit for these songs, and I think that’s OK. I think it’s OK to be a fan of that conduit.
Sure, I mean that’s very diplomatic of you. You’re a very diplomatic person.
I am. [laughs] And I get a lot of heat for it but, you know…
It’s a pretty aggressive world, Dan. And as the world’s become more aggressive, I feel like I’ve taken a lot of heat for being diplomatic. ‘Cause it’s not that chic to be diplomatic.
It’s pretty cool to be aggressive and aggro, but I feel like nothing is all one way, you know? Nobody is all one way; music is not all one way. And we have these conversations about how do you separate the art from the artist? I think it’s pretty fucking easy to do that. The art exists in an ether without the artist. The only job the artist has is to pull that art out, down from the ether. That’s the artist’s job; the artist is just the messenger for the art. So if you want to separate the art from the artist, they’re already separate to me.
To me, you just have to include the entire history. You can talk about Elvis’ place in music history, but you should tell the whole story. He was revolutionary but he was also “The King” of cultural appropriation.
Absolutely! And, you know, we can have that conversation and use his example to illuminate our understanding of music history. That’s the whole point, just to have a better understanding of music as a whole. I like to be a student of music, and I like to be a student of music history, and part of that is being an Elvis fan.
photo by Katie Sikora
Speaking of, I wanted to talk about your podcast, American 100. For the general readership, set up the premise of what you are going for with this podcast.
So the idea is going through the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 and taking two random songs in a random year and exploring those songs in the context of songwriting. It’s not really a music history podcast, even though we have to get into the history to talk about these songs. But it’s supposed to be more focused on how these songs came about and why these songs work as hit songs or pop songs… There are several Hot 100 lists, but the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 is the most units sold of a particular single by the end of that year. There’s a weekly, there’s a monthly, but I do the year-end, right? And it’s completely random if anyone has any illusions about it. I have a randomizer and I put the numbers into the randomizer at the end of every episode, so I don’t choose the songs. That’s a healthy exercise for me because it keeps me from any inherent bias. It keeps me from picking songs that I want to talk about. I think it’s more interesting to pick songs that you maybe don’t want to talk about.
Like that Elton John song, “Crocodile Rock”?
[laughs] Yeah, that’s not a great song!
Y’all were struggling on that one!
It was tough, but you get to the meat and potatoes of why this song exists. Basically the way I came up with the idea was, I heard “Life Is A Highway” [Tom Cochrane] on the radio, you know that one?
Oh yeah. Any fan of The Office would recognize that song.
Right, right. So I was wondering, why the fuck does this song exist? Why is this a hit? Why is this popular? Why would anyone write this song? So I started listening to the Billboard Year-End Hot 100s from random years on Spotify. I would pick a year and throughout my day while I was doing housework or making coffee, I would have that list going subconsciously. And then the thing I would notice is that there are a lot more songs that I wasn’t familiar with on that list than songs that I was. So I was like, “This would make a good show, just to go through these little nuggets.” And then I couldn’t decide, well how do I choose which songs to talk about? And that’s when I decided to make it random, and that’s the show.
What’s the prep like? Because there’s a lot of information, and I think one thing that should be made clear is that the show is centered around two songs that you’ve picked with this randomizer. But you segue a bunch, you’re going to talk about a handful of other songs.
I try to think of a theme first. I get the two songs randomly, and usually there’s like a whole day of agonizing, like how do I even talk about this, you know what I mean? When I get the random songs, it’s a hellish moment. It’s not cool. And then the next day I’m like, “OK, so what do these songs have in common?” ‘Cause they always come from the same year, right? So, they have something contextually in common. America in 1989 or America in 1976, there are things that link disparate songs. It could be a Billy Joel song and a Led Zeppelin song, but there’s a commonality because they existed at the same moment of consciousness in American history. So I try to figure out, what do these songs really have in common thematically, if anything? And then that’s how I start my approach. I usually dig into the research, the history of the recordings of the songs, and then I sit down and I try to listen to these songs and break down how I would approach them if I was writing the song. That generally helps me get into the head of the songwriter, and then I just go from there. For instance, the Elton John song, that episode‘s about nostalgia.
Right, the ‘50s and everything.
Yeah, totally. And that was actually kind of a relatively easy episode to write, because that song has a specific purpose, and its specific purpose was to sound like a song from the ‘50s. And so then I started researching, well, why were people obsessed with the ‘50s in the 1970s? And it kind of made sense: why are we obsessed with the ‘90s and the ‘80s now?
I can tell you put a lot of work into it. The podcast sounds like you just sidled up to a guy who knows what he’s talking about at the bar. You’re not locked into being robotic about how you break down the two songs.
Totally. I like to keep it fluid and I like to change up the format quite a bit. The Nirvana episode was probably one of my favorite episodes to do because I got to interview my friend’s kids and ask them what they thought, because I wanted to see if Nirvana hits the same way as it hit me when I was a kid. So I asked kids who were around, they aged from 10 to 13—and sure enough, kids these days still love Nirvana. It still hits them in exactly the same way that it hit me, and that was a great episode to do because… the word “timeless” gets thrown around a lot in music, but music can actually be timeless and be universal. And that’s one of the great things about this podcast, the overall message is that music is universal, and it can speak to people across space and time, right? Hence the robot.
That’s a nice touch. When I’m listening to the podcast, I’m always like, “This is NPR-ready. But then the robot comes in and I think that might be too spicy for NPR.
Oh, definitely! That’s another thing, I like those weird old radio shows, like Coast to Coast. I love that stuff, you know? So that was an element I wanted to bring, like a nerdy/sci-fi element to it. ‘Cause I’m a nerd.
One thing I had to ask you was about working at rue de la course, the coffee shop.
Yeah. The famous.
I think we have to document the era that you worked at “The Rue.” If somebody were to explain New Orleans’ young person’s culture circa 2000, you would have to start at the “Big Rue.”
So, before high speed internet was in your home, it was at coffee shops. And people came to this coffee shop not just to use the internet, but to talk about politics, talk about music… It was open til like midnight too, so the cafe was still a place where you shared ideas… I saw breakups happen there. I saw people get together there. It was every bit as popular as a bar. It’s hard to describe because people think of a coffee shop as the place you get in, get your coffee, and go about your day. Or you get in and sit down and study and don’t really talk to anybody, you know? But this was the place where people came together and they had conversations about any and everything—including the baristas. And it was popular for the baristas to kind of have an opinion about things… You had people that you would see on stage on a Friday night and then on a Saturday morning you’d be hungover and you’d stumble in and the singer of that band would be standing behind a bar. And they would be hungover too.
But there was coffee so it was OK.
It was OK, man. That was the vibe. It was such a unique experience working there. I met band members here. I didn’t really meet Eric Rogers there, but we came up with ideas for bands behind that bar, and those ideas became real bands!
I just had to have that documented, in the Year of Our Lord 2021.
I knew it was gonna come up, man.
OK, good. Do you still keep in touch with Jerry? Is it important to talk about what kind of owner Jerry is? ‘Cause he’s kind of a character.
Yeah man. You know, before there was Dan Stein there was Jerry Roppolo. [laughs]
Well put. Stein likes to think he invented that vibe—
Nah bro. I love Dan but Jerry paved the way. Jerry was like your quintessential eccentric curmudgeon… but with a heart of gold.
And he sure knew how to hire people.
Yeah, he would see you sitting in the corner and he’d be like, “I like that dude. He’s got a good look about him.” That’s kinda how I got hired: “I like that guy. He comes in here every day. He’s got a good look about him, I might as well pay him.” And that’s his thing, man. I still keep in touch with him. He’s an awesome dude.
You have played probably every venue in New Orleans, I would imagine, even going back to The Mermaid Lounge, right?
Yeah. Oh man, I miss the Mermaid. That was a great club (now The Rusty Nail). I think this is a really important note, because that club gave me my start. Of all of the clubs in New Orleans, the club and the person that gave me my start in my career was Anthony DelRosario—Turducken Productions—and the Mermaid Lounge. I owe him my entire history. He put me up in front of crowds opening up for bands like Joanna Newsom, you know? Indie rock bands that would become legendary. They played on this tiny stage in the Warehouse District, and I played for a little bit of pay and free High Life. But that exposure was integral to me. And it’s one of a kind too, it never reappeared. A place like that never happened again. The closest we got was Circle Bar. But a place like that never really happened again.
I don’t want to put you on the spot; I’m not gonna ask you what your favorite venue is ’cause I imagine they all probably have a special place. But if you could be anywhere right now, like loading in on a Saturday during Mardi Gras, where would you be?
Gotta be Circle Bar, man.
I would’ve said that before all this. But yeah, definitely that’s where I would be right now, for sure.
If you could have a five-minute portal back to your younger self, maybe a self who’s going to take the stage at the Mermaid, what would be something you would try to impart?
I would say stop drinking so much. [laughs] Don’t get drunk on stage, man. Just don’t do it. Get drunk after the show. Maybe have a couple before. But don’t get drunk on stage. It’s not a good look, and it won’t make your music better. Anyone that says they are better at anything when they’re drunk is lying to you.
Yeah, it’s a hard lesson to learn.
It really is. I’d say that and, I’d say be more patient, you know? Don’t try to force yourself. I kind of overshot myself, my aspirations. I didn’t have the skill level to do a lot of the things that I was trying to do back then. And I still tried them; I don’t regret that but I also would say be more patient. And what you can’t do, hire better musicians to do. And that’s a lesson I’ve definitely learned. Hiring better musicians to do the things that I can’t do has helped me immensely in my life.
We can always look back and think about things we would have done differently. So on the flip side I wanted to ask, what’s something that you hope you still have from those early days now?
I hope I still am able to have as much fun as I had back then. After COVID wears off and when I get back on stage, I hope in the future I can have as much fun as I did when I was a kid. Because I had a lot of fun on stages like Mermaid Lounge and Dixie Taverne… and I hope we as a city too, can re-evaluate where we are and maybe have a bit more fun with what we’re doing.
You don’t think we have enough fun in New Orleans?
I think we take ourselves really seriously now. I think we have a lot of fun but everything is so fucking serious and one of the things that I do miss about being young and being on that stage is I didn’t take myself that seriously. And I was able to really loosen up. I expressed it by drinking on stage, but if I could express it in a different way, then I would. The city has changed a lot, man. It’s not as loose as it used to be. We still have fun, but we’re not as freewheeling as we used to be. I don’t know why that is… I hope that we’re able to go back to the times where you felt good about getting off stage at two in the morning, you know? Or like never taking loading into an empty, dank, weird club for granted again.
I’ve always thought if you don’t appreciate those moments, you shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing. Like if you can’t appreciate the 6 p.m. bleach and alcohol smell of an empty bar, you know?
Absolutely, man. That’s where you learn how to do everything. I know it’s cliche, but it builds a lot of fucking character.
Have you toured a lot? Has tour been something that’s been a part of your life?
I’ve always been mostly a local musician, but I’ve toured with all the bands that I mentioned before. So yeah, I’ve toured quite a bit. Let’s put it this way: I think I’ve toured enough. [laughs]
I can get with that. I just have one more question. We’re working on the 200th issue of ANTIGRAVITY and I’ve been skimming through the archives for a couple reasons. One is to refresh myself on the evolution of the magazine. But the other reason is because I’ve known in the back of my mind for a long time that we never really covered you correctly. We haven’t really ever done the Micah McKee feature story.
Did we fuck that up?
[laughs] No! Not at all. That’s how it goes sometimes, right? People are ships in the night. You see each other all the time and that’s how being in New Orleans is. Everybody knows each other, but maybe it took you 10 years to buy that person a drink. That’s how it is in this city. It’s ships in the night. So yeah, not at all. [laughs]
No offense at all. None taken whatsoever.
You could say, “Yeah, y’all fucked up! What the hell’s wrong with this magazine?”
No, no! I remember back when y’all were first coming out and y’all were covering a lot of my friends that were doing some big stuff. I remember feeling a little bit slighted back then. But one thing that I have learned—and this is probably one of the most valuable lessons that I’ve learned—is to not take anything personally, especially in this business. Because it’s not personal; it’s very rarely personal. And in the music business, it’s best to not take things personally.
That speaks volumes to your character. You could be a lot more jaded than you are.
I love music, man. Music has saved my life so many times, and the gift of music is the greatest gift that I’ve ever been a part of. And during this time, during pandemic, the thing that has absolutely saved me has been records—listening to records and making records has been the absolute pleasure and joy of my life. So there is never any reason to be jaded about music because music is never jaded about you. It always gives you a chance.
For more info on ABUNDANCES (released on Campers’ Rule Records; cover art above by Keith Mannina), check out micahmckee.bandcamp.com or campersrule.com. For more info on American 100, check out cicadaradio.com/american100podcast.
top photo by Katie Sikora; transcribed by Michelle Pierce