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A Q&A with Roi and the Secret People’s Mike Roi

The other day I caught my friend Denise Barbarita do a solo, acoustic set at the Parkside Lounge. She had invited a few people to celebrate her birthday that night, and one of those friends was our mutual friend, who I’ll call S (for posterity). The strange thing was that S and I had been Facebook friends for several years now, and despite having several musician friends in common, we hadn’t met until that night.  For us, that adage about the six degrees of separation was much more like two degrees of separation in four or five different directions. Obviously as a music journalist and as a blogger, having some crazy story about how you met a band you wrote about or became friends with shouldn’t seem all too uncommon. It’s simply a part of the business after all… 

But here’s where things become interesting. Several years ago, my very dear friend G was my coworker. And naturally, as you become friends you get introduced to their friends, and she happened to have friend who played in a then-locally based band Roi and the Secret People. At the time, the lineup included Mike Roi on vocals, David Leatherwood on bass, Noel Rockwood (G’s dear friend) on guitar and slide guitar, Rich Kulsar (Denise Barbarita’s husband and S’s bandmate in another band) on drums, and a rotating cast of guitar heroes that included the extremely talented Mishal Zeera (who later added his production tough to Roi and the Secret People’s recently released effort, Phoenix.) Exceedingly small world, indeed. 

I followed the band through the years — and that included several lineup changes and then a relocation to the Easton, PA-area a few years ago. And although several songs of their recently released album, Phoenix (it officially dropped on April 23rd) have floated around in various incarnations through the years, the new effort represents several things for the band and for Roi. Unlike Dog St.. the band’s previous release, Phoenix is essentially a much needed reset button for primary songwriter Mike Roi. The classic, Southern rock sound has been replaced for a more straightforward, adult contemporary/pop sound that feels like a natural artistic progression. And thanks to Mishal Zeera’s production work, the material is densely layered and lush piiano intertwines with chiming guitars played through reverb and delay pedal. It’s gorgeous and yet feels absolutely effortless. But it actually does reflect Roi’s diverse influences and his artistic growth. 

Lyrically, the songs feel more direct, more personal and yet direct and in many ways fairly universal. Certainly, in an age when soulless, pre-packaged, processed product is cynically foisted onto an unwitting, unknowing public, some well crafted, thoughtful songs. Granted, the material on the album covers some familiar rock ‘n’ roll territory — “Drive” is about getting in your car and escaping with your gal or your boy; “Always Forever” is a sweet and very pretty love song, which is dedicated to Roi’s lovely life, Tara. But by far, “just a little closer” is one of Roi’s finest songs to date, and a really well-crafted rock song. But where the material will win a lot of listeners over is the fact that it’s done with a unflinching earnestness.

In this emailed Q&A, i spoke to the charismatic Roi about the new album Phoenix; his rather diverse influences — which include someone I’ve long admired, going back to his days with the Verve, Richard Ashcroft; how he got into music and realized when he knew he needed to do it for good; the band’s change of sonic direction on the album; and of course, much more. Check it out below. 

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Photo credit: John Hayes

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Photo credit: John Hayes

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WRH: How did you get into music? And when did you know that it was the only thing for you?

Mike Roi: I got into music through a new music program offered to my elementary school in the 6th grade. I wanted to play the saxophone but I didn’t know what it was called so I ended up with the clarinet — I guess my description of the instrument wasn’t clear enough to my dad. I played that until high school along with drums in the marching band.  I was going to a lot of rock concerts at the time and had some friends in school who were putting together a rock band for the annual Battle of the Bands. They needed a bassist so I got a cheap Peavy T-45, which weighed like 500 lbs., and since none of us knew how to play, we just worked through the most basic tunes we could handle. We wanted to play some of the songs from different bands we were into at the time like Metallica, Motorhead, the Clash, [Iron] Maiden, Dio - that sort of stuff - but the tunes that sounded the best in our bad scenario were “Smoke on the Water" and "Living After Midnight.” It was utterly horrible. We didn’t understand how to tune anything and our singer was SO bad, but he looked good which is why he had the job. Then I started to hang out and learn how to play from another neighborhood friend, Brian Shinn. He was the best guitar player around school at the time and I ended up playing with him at local house parties and even starting to sing out of necessity because there were no vocalists around us at the time. It led to me becoming the new lead vocalist for Brian’s Christian rock band called REVELATION. It’s at that time I knew I wanted to do this forever!

WRH: Who are your influences?

MR: That really depends on what chapter in my life musically; I’ve been influenced by so many different artists over the years.  Some major stand outs, in no particular order: Tom Petty, Bowie, Stones, the Doors, Janis Joplin, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Elvis Costello, George Jones, Iron Maiden, Dio, [the] Tragically Hip, Richard Ashcroft, Nick Cave, Wilco, Tom Waits. But my very first and foremost influence as a singer has to be Neil Diamond. The First 2 records I ever got were Neil Diamond’s The Jazz Singer and Kiss DESTROYER.  

WRH: What are you listening to right now?

MR: I’ve been digging the complete box set of Hank Williams with all his live radio and early demo recordings and I’m still obsessed with Richard Ashcroft’s solo stuff.

WRH: You’re originally from Florida. What brought you to New York?  

MR: After REVELATION saw its “end of days,” I formed a band with some of the members called Brother Grimm which took off in South Florida music scene for a good number of years. We were then told to get to a better city to continue the band on a bigger scale so we all moved to Philadelphia. I lived and played all over Philly from 1995-2000, during which time Brother Grimm broke up, and I formed a new band called Roi which had several years of gigging. In 2000 I landed an accidental job in NYC in the visual Dept. of FAO Schwarz while visiting a friend and fellow musician on her lunch break. So I had a job in the Big Apple but lived in Philly. I commuted for a while but it got to be too much and I ended up staying with my girlfriend at the time in the West Village, then a short stay out in Hoboken before I finally moved to Park Slope, Brooklyn.

WRH: How would you describe your sound? 

MR: One part Elvis Costello, one part Tom Petty, one part Nick Lowe - poured in a highball glass over ice, add garnish. Shaken not stirred. 

WRH: From my experience in covering bands, it seems fairly common for there to be lineup changes for a variety of reasons. Roi and the Secret People, like many of those bands have seen its share of lineup changes through the years. With that in mind, how did the initial lineup meet? 

MR: Well I had been jamming around NYC solo and with friends at the time so after writing the tunes for the first RSP album Dog. St. I recruited my friend Joe Roullier on Guitar, Noel Rockwood on Slide to play out with. After a few months auditioning drummers and bassists we got Ben Handel on drums and Frank S. to play bass. Later there were others added to the roster in a more stable role included bassist David Leatherwood and a few guitarists and drummers after a while - but Noel Rockwood was always a consistent member until I moved to Easton, PA. 

WRH: When you moved to Easton, PA a couple of years ago, there was a period where you were doing the solo thing. And then the Roi and the Secret People project was reincarnated. What brought that about? And how did you meet the guys in the new incarnation of the band?

MR: While putting the final touches on getting the new album Phoenix ready for release I put out an ad in the local Craigslist where I found this brilliant guitarist/artist Randy Melick to join me. Through the same process we built the rest of the band with a very high bar set to include local super talented players such as Dan DeChellis on Piano/Keys, Craig Martyn on drums, and Glen Radomski on the bass.

WRH: You’ve been both a solo artist and the frontman in bands. How does the writing and recording process differ for you when in the structure of a band vs. when you’re on your own? How has the songwriting process changed for you over the years? 

MR: With a band I love to write melodies and lyrics while structuring the verses and choruses of the tune over either a band jam or a riff someone will bring to the table. I love the collaboration part of being in a band; it fully utilizes the organic sound of the group. That is how I learned to write in the very beginning so for me it comes as the most natural way to construct a song in a group situation. When writing solo I like to use very simple chords, planting and watering the seed with melody and lyrics. I tend to go for the straight, obvious path from the verse/chorus structure and then when the tune is at its most basic form, I like to go back and start changing and moving things around to see if any fruit comes off the tree when shaken. I then just keep the stuff that stays in my head overnight and weed out everything else out that doesn’t need to be there while embellishing what need[s to] stay. 

WRH: The material on the new album, Phoenix has been floating around for quite a bit now. I’ve heard different versions of a couple of the songs on the album at live sets throughout the years — I think I’ve heard an acoustic version of “Sweet Maria” when you were going solo and I’ve heard “Phoenix” before at some point or another. But after hearing the album, it feels as though a reset button was pressed. With Phoenix, the down home, 70s Southern rock of your previous efforts is replaced with a more straightforward singer/songwriter-based rock with a bit of a pop sensibility. The material is also incredibly nuanced in a way that feels new. It’s subtle but noticeable to me. Was this a conscious effort as you were writing and recording the material?

MR: With this album there definitely was a conscious effort not go down the road of a 70’s southern/classic rock sound (whereas with the previous album, Dog St., there was a conscious effort to pursue that sound and vibe). I wanted to express the other side of my eclectic influences with this which is why it sounds the way it does. My producer Mishal was a big part of that, as was Kevin McAdams approach to the drumming in the recording. Also David Leatherwood helped me fine tune some of my ideas as well as write some of the lyrics in a few of the songs. 

WRH: “little bit closer” is probably my favorite song on the album. What’s the influence behind it? 

MR: It was written about my experience at the start of RSP in New York, from the perspective of an artist trying to put together a band project but ultimately having to hire musicians who played the grind in NYC all the time. Even though most of these guns for hire were my friends, it was still a “pay by the hour for rehearsal and gig” situation.  I could only play a show if I could afford to pay the players, so there was never a real “in it to win it” feeling from the group.  I was fortunate to play with some amazing musicians with this arrangement, and we had some great times, but NYC musicians only want to be a part of something they think is on the “brink” of greatness. I’ve learned that it’s the guys who stick with you through the rough patches and disappointments who matter when something finally happens for the band. Loyalty and commitment is hard to find. 

WRH: Lyrically, the material covers some of the familiar rock tropes — getting in your car and driving away from it all for a bit on “Drive”; undying devotion to a special loved one on “Always Forever” and the like; but it comes from a very personal perspective (ED Note: I know who she is and she’s a fitting muse for those songs)  — the love songs on the album are sincere and seem to be sung directly at the audience. How much of the material is influenced by your personal experiences? 

MR: Almost everything I write comes from personal experiences, either around me or something I am directly affected by. I find that is the easiest way for me to write. Although there are times I do break out my pad and pencil at a bar or during a subway ride to just listen to the random conversations around me. I’ve found bits and pieces of inspiration in that where it can lead to a more direct train of thought. And thanks for the ED note, it’s definitely true. 

WRH: You’ve now been part of the New York scene and now the Philadelphia/Easton, PA scenes. What differences have you noticed between the scenes? Any similarities? And what’s the response been to you and the band?

MR: Roi and the Secret People has been doing pretty well lately in both cities and although NYC is my favorite as far as cities I’ve lived in goes, Philly is starting to show us some love again. Philly has always been a hard nut to crack. Both cities seem to have their own circles of very supportive tight scenes which is always good to see. While NYC may be a bit more transient in it’s flux of talent coming in and out - Philly is definitely more like a neighborhood with bands really forming tight bonds around each other. Both are similar but also VERY different in the way they deal with new bands coming into town. 

WRH: I recently saw an interview with Beast Patrol's Vanessa Bley and the interviewer, Paolo De Gregario from the Deli NYC asked her an interesting question that I had never thought of before: Ideally if there was someone who’s services you can enlist for free, which would prefer a PR firm or a booking agent?” And why? 

MR: I would prefer a PR firm. We live in the day and age of social media, a good PR firm would be an invaluable resource in reaching out and marketing RSP to new audiences outside our local region and generating hype around our music and sound. That would ultimately lead to booking better shows where people show up based on the fact they have heard of us. 

WRH: What advice would you give to artists trying to make a name for themselves? Is there anything that an aspiring artist or current artist needs to know about the music industry? 

MR: Yeah, really concentrate on writing good material, put out a great recording and then present it with a live shows that kick major ass! Always listen to constructive criticism and never develop an ego which is like a slow cancer in any band situation.

There are several ways you can purchase one of those now old fashion things called  CD or digital download — the band is touring and you can always buy a physical copy from the band directly (and it’s a great way to show some direct support to independent artists).  You can also check out Amazon.com, iTunes or through the following links:

http://mikeroi.bandcamp.com

or

http://reverbnation.com/michaelroi

And since i mentioned live shows, the band has several live dates coming up including: 

Friday, the 20th at Connoly’s Klub 45 in Times Square

September 22nd at the Life’s Beacon Foundation Fundraiser in York, PA

October 18th at Little Steven’s Underground Garage

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