PHOTOS BY ANGELA BOATWRIGHT
STYLING BY ANNETTE LAMOTHE-RAMOS
United Bamboo coat, Calvin Klein shirt, Nudie Jeans, Valentino shoes
Mike: Calvin Klein shirt, Nudie Jeans. Jessy: Samantha Pleet shirt, 55DSL skirt
Mike Bones is the favorite guitarist of every musician that you like in New York. He’s the New York music-geek world’s secret weapon, having played in the (and we don’t say this lightly) downtown supergroup Soldiers of Fortune. Everybody who saw them during their extraordinary run of shows last year was knocked flat on their asses. They sounded like Crazy Horse. Seriously, it was like seeing Crazy Horse in a tiny little room, playing at full tilt. Mike and Pat from the band Oakley Hall were the two guitarists, and they traded lines and solos back and forth in a manner that made you unashamed to say things like “Nice licks!” If you can find a bootleg of their album,
Shred It Be
, you are a lucky little music enthusiast.
Mike has been doing stuff like Soldiers for a while now though—he’ll just pop out with a group of musicians, or back up someone like Cass McCombs live, chop everyone’s head off, and go home.
But now, finally, he’s done a record all his own. It’s called
The Sky Behind The Sea
and it is totally not what we expected. We figured we would put it on and hear perfectly executed electric Delta blues with some Johnny Thunders via Howlin’ Wolf vocals. That would have been great in and of itself. But instead we were slapped in the face with an epic album that brings to mind the best work of Leonard Cohen. It’s a record that takes its time, unfolds slowly and majestically, has fucking strings on it, and contains some of the most considered and well-written lyrics we’ve heard in forever. Seriously, who does good lyrics nowadays?
Recently, Vice sat down with Mike on the banks of the scenic East River and smoked about 40 Newports, which is what he smokes, and talked some shit.
Vice: When did you start playing the guitar?
Probably when I was about six, but I didn’t have a guitar until I was 10 or 11. I would play my cousin’s all the time. The first song I learned was “Tell Me What I’d Say” by Ray Charles. My uncle showed it to me. It was the only song I played for like five years.
Did you start making stuff up early on?
Pretty much right away. But I don’t think I got good until I was 21 or so. Or at least I didn’t think I was good until then.
Tell me about this Les Paul of yours. It, um, fell off the back of a truck, right?
My dad knew this guy that somehow came into a bunch of Les Pauls. My dad brought one home for me from work one day. It’s an expensive guitar, and I doubt my dad paid close to full price for it.
But you knew what a Les Paul was at that point, right?
Sure, because it was Slash’s guitar, and he was one of my favorite guitar players when I first started. And I also knew when my dad brought this guitar home that there was something shady about, let’s say, the provenance of it. He actually didn’t let me use it for a long time. It was sort of this carrot on a stick. “Get good enough grades, and you’ll get the Les Paul.”
Did it work?
I never really got good grades, so he just handed it over when I graduated high school. It was in the house locked up for like four years.
Mike: Surface to Air sweater, APC shirt, Helmut Lang pants; JR: Fremont dress
Everyone who commits to being a great guitar player has to go through a period when it’s all they do, all day long. You have to become like a guitar-nerd hermit.
That comes and goes in spurts for me. When I was 19 and 20, that was a big time.
What was your life like then?
I was coming out of being wild. I’d lived in New York City for a few years and burned out on raging every night, going out to bars, staying out till really late in the morning… The drugs I was taking changed and I started to stay home more. I basically played guitar for two years straight, all day and all night.
Is it a secret that you were a heroin addict?
Well, I don’t talk about it all that much…
Is it off the record then? Come on!
People who are creative who get into that shit go one of two ways. They either work on their thing constantly, like you did, or they drop it all and then years later start up with the “I coulda been a contender” stuff.
Yeah, all I did was play. But I dropped everything else.
So something good came out of it then.
Totally. But if things were different and I never started doing drugs, maybe I would have ended up playing all day for a couple years anyway. It just happened to happen in that time. That’s when I came into my own.
When did you first start writing songs?
I was drawn toward American music like blues and country—genres where there was a formal way you wrote a song. For a long time, the songs that I wrote were performed in a very strict style. They used a language and phrases and topics that weren’t my own, but I related to them.
Like who are we talking about here?
Hank Williams, Skip James… there’s millions. There was a while of doing that and not being happy with the songs I wrote or thinking that they were mine. It was more like I was adding to the canon of that kind of songwriting. It helped though. All the songs I write are still in a modified country/blues tuning, but they don’t have that down-home American vibe anymore. I took the ways I learned of playing from all those old records and simplified or twisted it a little bit.
Didn’t you spend some time down South learning from some cool old guys?
I’d made friends with this band from Memphis called Lucero, so I went down and stayed with them in the summer a few years ago. They knew all these older guys who sort of came up through blues, rock and roll, and R&B. I recorded an album’s worth of songs with the Lucero guys. It was all the kind of stuff I just told you about. I think I had to do that stuff to figure out…
Get it out of your system?
Well, not really, because I didn’t know I was getting it out of my system when I was doing it. Once I got back to New York, I realized that I had made this really Southern record. But the thing about playing down there is, like, everyone just takes their time. It was so hot. You didn’t really get started doing anything until seven or eight at night. That way of being laid-back and spread out kind of tempered the New York uptightness that I generally have.
Mike: Patrik Ervell jacket, Generra shirt, Kim Jones pants; Lauren: 55DSL dress
Were you able to successfully bring that stuff back with you? Many people have tried.
Only as far as songwriting. I was able to take my time with it a little bit more. Maybe the song can be seven minutes long instead of three, and maybe the song can be about more than one thing. I didn’t feel like I was in a rush anymore either. I mean, I’m a little old to be coming out with a first record.
But you’re one of those guys who’s been playing around town for years now. There’s Soldiers of Fortune, you’ve played with Cass McCombs…
I’ve always liked the idea of being spontaneous more than being in a band, so whenever someone asked me to play guitar, I would say yes just to see what we could come up with. But then I started to feel like I was doing that too much. I didn’t want to end up—
A session guy?
I never wanted to be just a guitar player. I wanted to stand in the middle of the stage, not on the side, so I backed off of playing guitar for other people and started writing these songs.
The songs on the record have a lot of words. It’s a real lyricist’s record. I remember being at your house last year and you were reading, like, Greek tragedies.
So is there Sophocles in your lyrics?
I hope so! I mean, I work at it. I sit there like you’d write a book or an article. I don’t just throw down a bunch of words.
You’re really into that period of Leonard Cohen that people don’t like to namecheck so much—even though it’s his best stuff.
I think that idea of a wunderkind, like early Cohen, Lou Reed, or Bob Dylan, is bullshit. People get better as they get older. Those Cohen records like
I’m Your Man, The Future,
are so much better than his earlier stuff! There’s all this dark drama on his early stuff, and there are brilliant moments, but he really hit his stride in the late 70s. It makes me happy to think that I have a few more years under my belt before I put out my first record.
You used to give a lot of guitar lessons.
It was mostly to people who wanted to learn how to play blues or old rock and roll. I figured out a pretty easy way to show that to people. To play that stuff, the less you know about the guitar already, the easier it is. People pick it up really fast.
OK, so what’s your favorite chord?
I thought you might ask me this. It’s C.
It’s been all about C for the past few years. The tuning I use is kind of a C tuning. It sounds really good when you strum a C chord really loud. Maybe it’s because there are no sharps or flats in it.
It’s all natural.
C is also the only key I can sing in, so…
Last question: Will you cop to the fact that a lot of people think you’re the best guitar player in New York?
Well, I mean, I don’t know. I feel like I have a good way of playing. But a lot of guitarists have such a gunslinger vibe. It’s kind of macho…
Come on, cut the shit.
OK, OK. I’ll cop to it. I am one of the better guitar players in New York.
There we go!
INTERVIEWED BY JESSE PEARSON
United Bamboo coat, Nudie Jeans, Valentino shoes