Michael Grubbs is living proof that dreams can come true. As an artist, he has had a lifelong love affair with music. A native of Richmond, Virginia, he began playing piano at the age of five, impelled by maternal instruction and inspired by the works of Brahms, Bach and Beethoven. An artistic sensibility was formed and later augmented by his teenage discovery of a more contemporary canon, including Billy Joel, Elton John and Led Zeppelin. It was during that time when the seeds for what would become Wakey Wakey were planted.
Grubbs will be the first to tell you that he is no overnight success. After 10 years of tending bar and playing open mic nights in NYC, he finally found himself in the right place at the right time. That’s when Grubbs met Mark Schwahn, chief writer and executive producer of hit American TV drama series ‘One Tree Hill,’ performing a brief set for him helmed by a then recent composition, ‘War Sweater’. Schwahn used the song in the finale of One Tree Hill’s sixth season and gave Grubbs a small recurring role in the show. His passion and dedication to his music finally paid off as the single captivated the audience and launched the single to #13 on the iTunes chart almost instantly. There followed a rapturously received debut album, the impossibly tortured ‘Everything I Wish I’d Said The Last Time I Saw You,’ and the devotion of a fan base whose fidelity to their idol led to the crowd-funding of a second album, 2014’s ‘Salvation.’
In 2015, Wakey Wakey released the 3-song digital ‘Homeless Poets’ EP which provided a taste of the heartfelt songwriting and independent spirit being tapped for their next release. Flash forward to 2016 and the stage is set for Grubbs to once again touch the hearts and captivate the minds of his dedicated legion of listeners with a new full-length release. The road to ‘Overreactivist’ was not an easy one. However, the results speak for themselves. The album, which drops February 26th, 2016 on The End Records, serves as Grubbs’ most powerful, autobiographical and mesmerizing work to date. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with this artist on the rise to discuss his journey as musician, the creative evolution he has experienced along the way and the challenges of bringing ‘Overreactivist’ to life!
Music is a major part of your life. How did it first come into your life?
I was raised by musicians, which is a lot like being raised by wolves! [laughs] There are certain things we do that no one else really gets. Music was a real language in my family and a way to communicate about things. It was a big part of the day to day. You know how most kids have a playroom with toys in it? Well, we had a playroom that had musical instruments in it. When I was a little kid I was playing and rolling around underneath the piano! [laughs] We had this big burgundy baby grand piano and my mom taught lessons on it at the house, so I spent a lot of time in that world. Music, early on, was a big part of my communication. I learned to read music when most kids learned to read English. I mean, I learned to read English too! This isn’t the article where I admit that I can’t read! [laughs]
Were there mentors in your life who had a big impact on you?
Yeah! I was a band geek when that time came. My mom had taught choir at the middle school, so when I got there it wasn’t a natural thing for me to be in the choir. I had already been in choirs my whole life, so it was more important to me to learn an instrument. At that point, I started studying the French horn. I remember I had a middle school choir teacher named Mr. La Grand. He was awesome. He really invested time into me and tried to have an accelerated course for me since I had already been exposed to a lot of things they were teaching. That was great. Of course, in college, you have various mentors who are important to you. It is fun to think of it in that way, as opposed to my direct musical influences. I mean, I can talk about Radiohead but it is pretty cool to talk about Mr. La Grand.
What can you tell us about the process of finding your creative voice as a young artist?
I was never really exposed to pop music as a kid. We had a lot more classical and religious music. I was exposed to more hymns than I was to dance music. For me, pop music was the forbidden fruit. When I got to college, it was the first time I ever really cracked it open. It was a pretty overwhelming thing for me to be at that age and suddenly experiencing it all. I didn’t even know what it was to be cool! [laughs] I had never even thought about it! [laughs] For me, college and the first six or seven years in New York was spent wandering around through the musical landscape seeing what was going to be for me and what I was going to embrace. I was in a jam band. I also had the really straight singer/songwriter stuff that I did. That first 10 years in New York, I was in the anti-folk scene for awhile, which is a very experimental version of folk, which is really cool. It’s funny, with Wakey Wakey, when I got to that process, the first set of songs I did as Wakey Wakey, was when I really felt I had found my voice. The audience reaction to it was so fast. There is a confidence that comes from speaking as yourself when you develop the character you want to be or whatever it is that you want to put forward. When you really develop that, a lot of the stage fright and that stuff kind of goes away.
You have a new album for us called “Overreactivist.” Any new project comes with a new set of goals and aspirations. What did you aim to achieve when you started the process?
The first thing I ever said about the album out loud, when I was talking to producer Chris Cubeta, was that I wanted to make an art rock EP. I wanted to be completely free of any thoughts of commercial success, radio or anything like that. I wanted to throw it all out the window and make something I felt was a true and honest piece of art. In doing so, it seems to be people are embracing it much more than anything I have done before or when I did a pop album, which is an entirely different genre. The artistic aspect of it was really important, throwing away form, throwing away rules and really taking everything I had learned and setting it free. I think that shines through on the album in that the songs aren’t as structured as some of my older stuff. It is a little more left of center, which I personally really like. The other thing is that Chris and I said we were going to make something we thought was cool. [laughs] If we didn’t really love it, it wasn’t going on the album. If there was a sound that we were like, “I don’t know. That reading is weird to me,” it didn’t get on the album. Everything had to be very authentic, very real and speak to myself and Chris, my collaborator.
Let’s talk about that collaboration. You worked with producer Chris Cubeta in the past. What does he bring to the mix?
It is a really weird thing that I have with Chris. We have so much in common. There are some places were we pass exactly the same and there are others where it is so disparate that it is amazing we are able to even work together! For instance, we have the same birthday, which is kind of strange. We just did a five-day trip through Europe together, while visiting gradiometers stations and stuff like that. We had a lot of time to talk about music and different artists. We were talking about “August and Everything After” by the Counting Crows. We were like, “That was the best album for me during such formative years! It was such an important thing.” Then there are things we don’t agree on. I love Katy Perry! I love pop music and he does not! [laughs] He can enjoy it in a certain way but he doesn’t enjoy it. He is much more into Pearl Jam and things a little more raw in that way. Those are things I think are really cool but I have never embraced as much as I have with pop. There are also people we crossover on, who are contemporary, like St. Vincent and other people on the landscape who we work together on. All of that musical stuff comes together and lends to the overall picture. I think if I go too far in my direction, it’s not cool. If we go too far in his direction, it’s not me. He kind of helps me bring out the best side of myself.
What can you tell us about your songwriting process these days? Has it changed much since you first started?
Yes and no. I think what I have realized is that there are different forms of songwriting for different types of things. I think of pop music as more of a product. Pop is something about the end goal and then you create what it is that is in your mind. You make things that are really delicious and really fun. There is also a more artistic side that comes from the gut and you don’t know what it is going to become. Albums like “Almost Everything,” the first album we put out, and the current album, “Overreactivist,” are much more artistic and going from the gut type of albums. For that kind of thing, it is a collection of ideas. I try to grab little ideas out of the air, throw them in a jar and at the end of it determine what feel the most cohesive and what feel the most passionate for me. Then I flesh out the spaces between and make the album. That is my favorite way to write and it is really quick too. We write really fast! Everything runs on energy in the way we work together. That is a fun way for me to work because I have terrible ADD and I can’t nitpick too much and have to just roll with it.
What were the challenges you faced in the process of creating “Overreactivist?”
Oh, man! There were so many crazy hurdles with this album! One thing that was important to me was not having any outside input, which meant I had to do the entire thing myself. No one outside of Chris and I, besides a select group of friends, heard any of it before it was done. No one on the business side of things heard it until it was done. That meant everything was totally self-funded and brought together. On top of that, we wanted to work at this studio called Galuminunfoil, which was the place where we made the first album. I met with Chris and said, “Hey, I’ve got this idea. I want to do this album … ” And he was like, “They are knocking down the studio on February 1!” [laughs] This was at the beginning of January, so our timeline for recording the album was insane and the studio was already fully booked, so we couldn’t just walk in and record whenever we wanted. We basically had to go in late at night or early in the morning. We had a total shoestring budget. We played 99% of the instruments ourselves. The people who came in and played our strings and our drummer were the most wonderful people and they played at such a cut rate. It was truly a labor of love. We were working hard and fast. We never gave up and suddenly, one day, we realized we had this creepy piece of art and we were really proud of it.
Which songs from the album resonate with you the most at this point in time?
I think that “Heartbroke,” the opening track of the album, is something that is really resonating with me. I feel like it is a really good sample of what is to come in the album. If you think of the album as a crazy elliptical, where there is this center meat of the album and there is a lot of the stuff and to the right and left but the center is where it all comes together. Think of it as being in the shape of an eye. I feel like the iris of the eye is “Heartbroken” and it really sums it all up in a great way. I feel like it is a piece of art and I am really proud of it.
You took everything a step further with bringing in a talented artist to create the artwork for “Overreactivist.” What can you tell us about that aspect of this album?
My wife is an art book publisher. She works in, what can be considered, the high art culture of New York. We have spent a lot of time going to art shows, looking at art at homes and flipping through different things and saying what we like and what we don’t like. That is a language I have really learned to speak with her, which is great. Obviously, the artistic side of the album was very important. I think I have said the word art a nauseating number of times during this interview! [laughs] However, for me to make something I was really proud of was really important. We came across a piece of art by a woman by the name of Michelle Meged, who is a very talented artist who does collage. The minute I saw that piece it really spoke to me and I felt a guttural reaction to seeing the collage. That is what ended up being the cover of the album. In getting to know Michelle, talking to her and bringing her in on the project was amazing. She was so sweet and, as I got to know the rest of her catalog, it was overwhelming! Everything she does is so beautiful and astounding. I ended up working with her and picking different pieces of her art to fill out the entire packaging of the album. I think there are 10 or 12 of her collages used inside the album. When you open it up it becomes this crazy visual thing, which is pretty intense and fun!
I totally agree and it isn’t something you see as much these days with the rise of digital media.
Yeah. People are really focused on digital and understandably so. It is tough to think, “I am going to make this physical product and who knows if anyone is going to buy it! People are going to download the album.” The interesting thing about Wakey Wakey is that we are the kind of band that is more important to a small society of people. We aren’t the type of band that is embraced very casually by the masses. We aren’t Justin Bieber or Katy Perry, artists who have certain tracks who are casually in everyone’s minds. The people who are really into our songs treat it like art. For me, it is more about creating something that is actually worth buying, opening up and looking at! It is also awesome and a lot of fun to do. It is really one of my favorite parts of the process, putting clothes on this stuff.
So much can be said about the state of music these days. What excites you most about being part of the industry in today’s climate?
I think there is a lot to be really excited about. It’s funny, Spotify has its pluses and minuses but it is also a reflection of modern culture. I don’t think it is the cause for modern culture but a reflection of it. One of the real positives of something like Spotify is their New Music Friday Playlist. That is an amazing way to find great new music that is out. They have put two or three of our last singles on there. That resulted in us being exposed to more people than we ever would have. It is almost like new radio. The other great thing is that it used to be that you would sell a CD, you would get paid that day and that would be it. You could do a couple of albums, invest your life and time into it and get one big payday from selling all of those albums and who knows what would happen down the line. Now, with streaming, one really positive thing is that there is this new creation of mailbox money! [laughs] If your song continues to stream, you continue to get something. It is almost like you were in any other business where you build a career, take it with you and it continues to support you throughout your life. That is something I see as a really positive aspect of the current landscape.
You are going to head out on tour very shortly. What can we expect from this outing and what goes into bringing a tour to life these days?
Oh, man! It is a crazy amount of work. I can’t really put into words the amount of time it takes. It really does become a 9 to 5 job, a few months before a release. It is crazy how hard you work as a musician, if you take it seriously! [laughs] For us, the U.S. tour is a co-headlining tour with a guy name Lee Dewyze. We are both playing solo for that. I am going to play some of the older stuff, some of the new stuff and some of the middle. I want to span as much of the catalog as much as possible. The intimate solo show is a really interesting way to get to know the songs on a deeper level. I think, for our hardcore fans, a lot of them prefer that. For our European tours, Chris is going to play guitar and Sarah Koenig-Plonskier, which is a crazy mouthful of a name, will be playing violin with us. We have worked really hard on the show to make it something more than just three people sitting there playing their instruments. That continues to develop with different kinds of things that will make it into a real musical experience. I am really excited about both of the different experiences we have coming up. They will be very different and both very artistically rewarding for me.
Young artists can look to you and to what you created as an inspiration. What is the best lesson we can take from your journey so far?
That is a tough one. There are so many ways to answer this question. I think the success that I have had is the result of persistence. The success that I have had is the result of 10 years that I spent as a bartender in New York, working every single day honing my craft, experiencing and living. I think the number one thing would be to never give up. Keep working. If you want to give up it’s fine but if you want to be a musician keep going because it could be that you will be in your 30s in a coffee shop playing at an open mic and you will get discovered. It will all be because you never gave up and got better and better throughout the time. I also think a really important thing for me was having the understanding that if I had moved to New York, gotten signed and swept up into the big thing right way, I wouldn’t have been ready for it. I would have been eaten up by the whole system, spit out and would probably be working at a bank right now. The time I spent doing the hard work is all part of the reward. If you are kind of struggling and that is what is going on, it is easier said than done, but embrace that and realize it is all part of the process. When it is time for you to make it big, you will be there and you will do a better job at it because of the time you spent working and paying your dues.
Any other thoughts on this new release before I let you go?
The album is on pre-sale right now, so if people want to head to whatever outlet and pick it up. If they can buy it, that is awesome! If they are looking for the best way to take care of me as an artist, buy it and then stream it! [laughs] I’m excited to see everybody at the shows. I think anyone who was a fan of the first album should take a minute and check this one out. As an artist, I want each album to be different. This album is more of what I was doing when we met a lot of the fans. If anyone heard the dance album and thought, “Oh, holy shit! He is doing pop music now,” that is not what I am doing, I am doing art, so each one is different! [laughs] This is going to be one that I think will resonate with people who enjoyed the first album.
Perfect! Thanks for your time today, Michael. I can’t wait to see where the journey takes you next!
Awesome, man! I really appreciate it! I appreciate you being a fan and I hope to see you at a show soon! Thanks for writing about music and I will talk to you later on!