Not Your Average Musician: Chromatik Interview with Mikey Wells of the Silver Lake Chorus

Mikey Wells Mikey Wells is not your average musician, nor are the many projects he has pioneered. In fact, there’s not much he hasn’t done. He’s led the Silver Lake Chorus through compositions tailor-made for them by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and AC Newman of the New Pornographers. He’s written and composed for the comedic troupe, the Lost Moon Radio. He even helps kids foster their creative sides in after-school programs. Regardless of his involvement, Wells has developed a penchant for bringing out the best in any musical setting.

Read on below for our entertaining discussion on his musical education, the Silver Lake Chorus, and the Lost Moon Radio.

 Tell me a little bit about how you got into music in general.

Like many kids, I started off with piano lessons at an early age, but inevitably it sort of gave way after a couple of years. Probably around fifth grade I remember hearing my brother play some Billy Joel on the piano. He’s an older brother, so I was a little competitive. I thought, “Wait a minute! If he can play that, I can play that!” It came from the same place as always wanting to beat your brother at HORSE. That’s when I started noodling around, I was always more into messing around with my own ideas than playing Old McDonald.

Then as a fun thing in middle school, I started writing imitations of Billy Joel songs. I remember thinking ‘Just write a chorus where you sing the name of a cool made up character,’ so I wrote a song called Ray Bombay. It was atrocious. When high school came around and it was time to sort of figure out what you were gonna do, I ended up going the creative route, joining the choir as well as being in the plays and musicals, though I grew up with a real hunger for sports as well. My dad actually, as it turns out, has run a choir in LA for over thirty years. That was another big thing for me — there would frequently be 25 or 30 people rehearsing in my living room every Tuesday night. Inevitably I feel like that became a big influence in terms of experiencing the beauty of a group of people singing together, as well as the relationship between text and music in general.

Let’s talk about your involvement with the Silver Lake Chorus. How did you get involved and what is it that you do?

 Shortly after grad school, a friend of a friend approached me to help her run a chorus that she was interested in starting, casually, on the East side of LA. It was sort of like, “You’re the guy who does these sorts of things. What do you think?” So I said, “Yeah, sounds good. I’m not sure. Oh wait, I’m busy.” Luckily it ended up working out that I could be the music director of the group, and here we are, years later, making a really exciting record and having a ton of fun.

Ben Lee found his way to a rehearsal of ours, and that night had the idea for the album. His vision not only shaped the album but helped to shape a lot of what we’re doing now, which is that we get original songs from your favorite indie artists, then we put these never-before-heard songs in the choral-music-meets-indie-music laboratory and see what comes out. Here we are, a year-and-a-half later, finishing up the album, and it’s been unbelievably fun and exciting and challenging to blow up and explore what’s possible between a chorus and present day music. We’ve been lucky enough to get songs from people like Justin Vernon, Carl Newman, Aimee Man, Tegan & Sarah, The Flaming Lips, you know, it’s crazy. Ben has done an amazing job getting really cool people onboard. The album should be out sometime this year.

Early on you guys posted up some covers and it seemed like you were getting pigeonholed into that Glee mentality by some. Do you think these original compositions are changing people’s perceptions of the chorus?

Choral music has obviously been around for thousands and thousands of years. It has been mainstream before, during the baroque and renaissance periods, and believe it or not ‘twas likely to make it back to the mainstream again.  Most recently in the last few decades you could chalk it up to Boyz II Men or Glee, but The Andrews Sisters, Manhattan Transfer, Peter Paul and Mary and some of these other timeless acts helped to keep singing in harmony popular over the course of the 20th Century. Naturally with Glee, choral singing became even more accessible and popular to present day kids.

And I think you’re right, people were wondering if we were just another college a-capella group. What we’ve done in working with this original content and with this album is we’ve begun to explore the wide range of material we like to do, while also honing in on what ‘our sound’ is. We’re a chorus that can sing a capella, but we’re also a chorus that can arrange and produce a track where layered choral music works in conjunction with all the present day musical amenities; drums, electronic drums, bass, guitar, piano, synths, the whole thing.

What was the interaction like with these artists who wrote for the record?

From a production standpoint there hasn’t been a huge back and forth with the artists. We receive tracks, some fully produced and some raw-scratch recordings, and are given total freedom to do what we like, in some cases cutting, adding, or changing sections. Ben sends over bounces of both early and further developed tracks to the artists sometimes, they always seem to be pretty excited and surprised by what they hear. It’s been fun to strike a balance between being inspired by the vibe and sound of the artist who gave us the song, and taking creative license to interpret the song and really make it our own.

So you charted out the songs for the group?

Oh yeah, like nobody’s business. For every song, a wonderful gal, and soprano in the chorus, Heather Ogilvy and I arrange a sketch to bring in for the chorus to sing, listen to how it sounds with the choir, make some adjustments, try alternate endings, keep going, totally change the direction of the piece… It all depends, and it’s definitely a process. For some of the songs, we’ve been pretty spot on from the get go, and others we’ve had to re-work time and time again to try to get it right.  But yeah, lots of notes and rests and key signatures and staves.

When you hear a song or a recording can you immediately tell if you’ll be able to get it to work with the choir or do you have to process and perform it before making that judgment?

I think the experience you get from writing and arranging choral music over a decent amount of time can start to give you a better and better sense of how it will sound without having to actually hear the chorus sing it. Whether you sketch it out on the piano or with some MIDI instruments, you can usually get a decent feel for what will work. The fun thing is, you will never ultimately know how it will sound until you hear actual people singing it, which I think is so cool. Sometimes you bring something simple in that you think will sound elementary and tasteless, and it ends up being simple and peaceful and it really works. Sometimes you over-arrange a given part and figure you’re gonna have to cut it down, but when you hear it with 20 voices, somehow it works. You always do your best to bring in something that will work well. I think that’s one of the fun parts about working on music — having high standards. Sometimes it can be a tough thing and you’re your own worst enemy, but you also sort of keep yourself and whomever you’re working with on their toes and inspired to keep going.

Now you also work with the Lost Moon Radio; tell me about what that’s like.

 Indeed! It’s an awesome group of people. We’re a sketch-comedy and music group that has a podcast, performs live shows, makes videos, and does all kinds of nutty, fun stuff. I am a composer for the group, and I also play the drums and sing from time to time. I wear a bunch of different hats. I’m also the Vocal Director, so I get to work with all the hilarious people on singing.  Along with a couple other guys, I write songs and some underscoring and stuff like that. It’s been a great place where I can be really creative; write, perform, play, give silly ideas license, record, direct, it’s been great. One of the most fun parts about the music in Lost Moon Radio is that we write a lot of musical satire, so we end up listening to a lot of great music as references. I’ll go from delving into Oingo Boingo one month, then listening to a bunch of Desinty’s Child and En Vogue the next month, only to geek out over David Bowie tunes for a crammed afternoon for inspiration.  It’s a really great company and an awesome creative outlet.

Read more about the Silver Lake Chorus and Lost Moon Radio.