Mike Viola: Tales of a Superkid

Mike Viola

Superkid
Do you remember Superkid?
How could you forget
Has he made it yet?
– Mike Viola, “Superkid”, 2004

Mike Viola is waiting for me outside Center Stage Theater on West Peachtree Street, looking cold but patient. I’m one minute late, and I curse the downtown traffic. But what I think will be a quick interview between sound checks suddenly turns more conversational when he asks if I’d care to grab dinner.

Dinner with Mike Viola? Hell yes.

“I haven’t had anything to eat since yesterday morning. I’m starved,” he says. He got in to Atlanta at 5 a.m. this morning – the 35th stop on his nationwide tour opening for Rachael Yamagata. Such is life on the road, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s great. Nowadays with an iPhone you can just get online, find a hotel and place to eat. I have a hotel room on the 51st floor with a spa and it cost me 100 bucks a night,” he says. “Back in the 90s I would be on the outskirts of Atlanta in a Motel 6, and feeling depressed because no one came to my show.”

Mike Viola has passed through many hotels and motels during his 30-year career as a musician. Once a child phenom who had his own band at 13, Viola turned heads as a teenager in his home town of Stoughton, Mass.  “I wanted to sound like Foreigner or REO Speedwagon. I was a suburban kid, that’s what I listened to. But I ended up sounding more like the Buzzcocks.”

Mention Viola’s name to most people and you’ll get a blank stare until you start singing the theme song from “That Thing You Do!” It’s his voice you hear on the title track from the movie – a reedy tenor voice that sounds crystal clear, with just enough of an edge to make you think he’s about to lose his voice. He’s equal parts Marshall Crenshaw, Elvis Costello, and Paul McCartney after a four-hour set in Hamburg.

He’s had several brushes with fame. In 1996, the same year he almost cracked the Top 40 with “That Thing You Do,” (it peaked at #41), his band Candy Butchers released a live EP. They were signed to a major label in 1999 and released “Falling Into Place.” He made an appearance on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.” Things were looking up.

Six years and three albums later, he had parted ways with his record label and his manager.

‘It Was Like Unlocking the Matrix’

I had picked up that first EP, Live at La Bonbonniere, at a used record store about 15 years ago, having only heard of the group through friends. I listened to the CD while driving home from the record store, and even though it consisted of only five songs, I was hooked. “California Girl” was breezy and sunny, with melodies that stuck with me all day. “Till You Die” was charming if you didn’t listen to the lyrics (“I will haunt you till you die”), with chord progressions that I had never encountered before.

Mike Viola in 1980

Viola c. 1980, second from left.

“Oh yeah, that’s a C sharp seventh, but I play it kind of funny,” he says over dinner when I ask him about several of the chords. “The other is half-diminished. I’ll show you.” It takes a scramble to Wikipedia to figure out what a half-diminished seventh chord is.

Like McCartney, Viola is self-taught. He took a few courses at Juilliard when he was awash with money from the record executives and loved it. “Couldn’t get enough of it. It was like unlocking the Matrix.”

Indeed, Viola seems to have unlocked some secret vault of addictive melodies that few have been able to crack. Hearing the ease of key changes and the Beach-Boys-like background vocals on “The Strawberry Blonde,” the slow picking of the acoustic guitar and the plaintive singing in “Hair of the Dog” and the instant earworm quality of “Soundtrack of my Summer,” one wonders how this man’s songs aren’t playing in every living room in America. I suddenly become annoyed by the Ke$has and Justin Biebers of the world, who are taking his place on the record shelves in Walmart and Target. Isn’t he upset by their success?

“Not at all,” he says graciously. “I’ve always liked what was on the radio. Always will.” Viola aims to find a corner of the market seeking more than just quick-passing satisfaction. Earlier this year, in a column for the ASCAP website, he wrote, “Look at the charts. Listen to the charts. Everything on the charts is a popular product that’s not very good for you if you consume too much of it but in little doses is a sheer joy and affirmation of what it is to be alive and to be able to consume and shit the thing out the next morning.  Rihanna, a bag of Doritos, the Black Eyed Peas, a can of Mountain Dew.“ Viola is selling nutritious food, one piece at a time, from a street cart outside the supermarket.

Growing Up

Superkid
I think I last saw Superkid
On late night TV
He’s just as old as you and me
I don’t believe in Superkid

Viola’s last album with his record label must have been heart-wrenching to make. Titled Hang on Mike, it was a 42-minute therapy session. “Whatever happens to all our dreams, to all our plans?” he sang in “Hunker Down.” He waxed nostalgic about his boyhood friendship with former Candy Butcher Todd Foulsham in “Kiss Alive II”, recalled his first wife’s battle with cancer in “Painkillers,” and relayed the struggles with touring in “Unexpected Traffic.”

But the album centers on “Superkid,” whose chorus sounds eerily like “Jesus Christ Superstar.” It’s Viola’s song to his 13-year-old self, when he was being lauded as the second coming of Elvis. There were expectations then; what would people think of the artist he had become? Was he washed up at 40?

Far from it.

In the title track for Hang on Mike, he tells himself, “If there’s one thing you’re good for it’s holding on / If there’s one thing you’re good for it’s another song.” Free from his manager and record label, Viola was renewed and threw himself into his career. Since then he’s written music for two major motion pictures, collaborated with Mandy Moore, Fountains of Wayne member Adam Schlesinger and current tourmate Rachael Yamagata; and he’s released several solo albums, the latest being this year’s Electro de Perfecto.

“It’s not believing in the idea (of being a Superkid),” he says on his way back to the venue. “I think I had to shed this whole Idea that I was destined for anything. It was really empowering to shed this idea that I was destined for anything but working hard and trying. I was given  talent, but I wasn’t destined for any particular thing.” It’s a lesson many of us find out later instead of sooner; as John Lennon so succinctly said, life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.

What’s next? A possible second collaboration with Mandy Moore – he co-wrote many of the songs on Moore’s 2010 release Amanda Leigh. He’d love to tour again and continue to introduce others to his music. His previous release, 2007’s Lurch, has been his biggest seller so far (including the major label releases), and he hopes Electro de Perfecto will top that.

“I’m all about one step at a time…Baby steps.”

Nothing in this life’s guaranteed
Nothing you build will outlast me.
–  “Superkid”

Buy Electro de Perfecto (Amazon.com)

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