Mike iLL has probably done, seen, and just plain lived more than your average insulated rock star, yet in many ways he's only just begun. While many wannabe young upstarts are going back to the basement to study their folks' new-wave albums or their older brothers' grunge discs, Mike ILL and his Mad Happy crew are roaring through the timeline of popular music to deliver rough-around-the-edges rock n roll that is all about the right here and the right now. And that is totally their own.
Mike iLL, nee Kilmer has always operated outside of the prevailing trends, often so far ahead of the curve that all he could see in either direction was a straight line. He first went on record as bassist for the early nineties band, Sweet Lizard Illtet, a fiercely rhythmic combo on Warner Bros. that spliced together hip hop, hard rock, industrial grooves, and out-there jazz into a resolutely genre-defying sound. The Hoboken-based outfit was prescient in its tastes, anticipating the ascendancy of groups like Nine Inch Nails and foreshadowing the style of more contemporary bands like Linkin Park. The Illtet appeared at the (in)famous Lollapalooza Festival alongside Ministry and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the group got to jam on shows with the likes of Maceo Parker. Their visual sensibility was just as forward-thinking as the music: their album graphics and unplayable-on-prime-time video were gritty, confrontational, politically charged, filled with the skepticism, anger and, occasionally, hippie-like hopefulness that fuels today's anti-globalization protesters.
There's more hippie-like hopefulness than anger on Mad Happy's Feel Good Music, and for the first time, Mike, who has switched from bass to a typically unorthodox style of guitar playing, is writing slightly askew, but close-to-classic pop songs. Though Mike comes across as seriously streetwise in look and attitude, he brings a kind of innocence, an emotional openness, to his music, which, in this incarnation, is more pop-oriented, radio friendlier, and often exuberant -- cutting edge but not hard-edged. Just check out his cool, off-the-cuff anthem, "The Rock and Roll."
Mike was raised in the shadow of Manhattan in pre-gentrified Hoboken, New Jersey, where the once-thriving waterfront was decaying, the streets were mean, but the rents were cheap. Mike's folks were among a handful of urban-pioneering artists and musicians who established a bohemian beachhead in town, and members of that tightly knit, forward-thinking clan appear on Feel Good Music. Mike left the 'hood to attend the New England Conservatory in Boston; classmates included the guys from Martin, Medeski, and Wood, with whom he has recently been collaborating.
As a mere kid, Mike played his first gig accompanying avant garde jazz man and longtime Hobokenite Perry Robinson; Perry returns the favor now with some beautiful clarinet touches on "Magdeline." Childhood buddy and Illtet co-founder Emilio "Zef" China contributes gentle strings to the end of "Heartbreaking World." Noted jazz pianist Joe Ruddick, another member of the extended Hoboken family, performs on "Leaky Eyes," and his DJ son Ani, of DeeLite fame, adds some scratching to "The Rock and Roll."
Mike and his band mates -- Nelson Pla on drums, Graig Robeson a/k/a Crag on bass and Mad Happy covergirl Rivka on vocals - play more than 200 gigs a year, and you can read about their exploits in a diary Mike maintains on his website, www.madhappy.tv. Mike has also self-published, Henry Rollins-style, an account of his previous on-tour exploits as a solo artist in the Antifolk Road Manual. Bringing along a scant amount of equipment, Mike and Mad Happy follow their instincts more than any itinerary. For example, during a recent foray to the southeast, Mike and company proved they could think on their feet in a situation that would befuddle most bands.
As Mike wrote in his online diary, "Last night we pull up to the club and the manager's like, 'The sound man didn't show up, the local band is stuck two hours away, and the owners are waiting for the fire marshal.I don't know what to tell you.' So we took a drive to a local coffee shop to chill for a minute. Saw this other club on the way and stopped in and asked if we could jump on the bill there. Place was great.One dude bought $45 worth of CD's and we're eating at his house today."
The inspiration for the songs on Feel Good Music. came from all sorts of places, people, and things: late-night hanging out in London, the novels of Henry Miller, the in-your-face flamboyance of New York City's drag queens. "'The Rock and Roll,'" Mike says, "was written for a class of high-schoolers to whom I was teaching beginning guitar. They love Slipknot and Incubus, and I wanted to write something simple with cool lyrics that didn't include curses or talk about drugs.the rhythm of the lyrics is the same as the guitar."
Feel Good Music is not just a stack of forward-thinkin', hard-rockin' tracks. It's a no-holds-barred introduction to Mike's mad happy life.