Anthems That'll Rock You: Interview with Mike Downey of The National Splits
by Dave Heaton
No matter what band he's playing with, Mike Downey delivers melodic rock and roll with a reckless sort of creative lack of restraint. In other words, he sings and plays his heart out without worrying about every note being perfect or every recording having a technologically sophisticated sound to it. Which is what rock is all about, really… just doing what you feel, seeing where the music takes you. What makes Downey's music work, however, is that he also has the gift of melody, a knack at a catchy tune or riff. His latest album is the self-titled debut of The National Splits (released by Kittridge Records/Black Bean), essentially a one-man group. Before that he played as Mathlete, and before that was a founding member of the fantastic, Champaign, Illinois-based power-pop group Wolfie. Downey left that group before their final album Tall Dark Hill, but now plays with the same sort of energy that made Wolfie so great, while here and there dipping into a variety of musical styles outside of what that group played. He's also now in a rock band called The New Constitution…all of which means that he seems like a busy guy, a prolific musician. To help keep track of what he's up to, and get more insight into his music, I recently had the chance to ask him some questions over e-mail, all of which he was kind enough to answer.
First, a few questions about The National Splits CD. It was recorded from September of one year to October of the next...what was the recording process like? Were you collecting songs and recording them here and there over the year?
Well I just took my time. I'd record the actual songs pretty quickly but I'd go in spurts of actually sitting down to record. I had a ton going on when I first started the album…I was actually still in Wolfie and in the studio with them for a short span working on what became their Tall Dark Hill release. None of my songs for that album were ever finished though. Also, I was starting to get together with some old friends to form The New Constitution. The Splits CD wasn't really a priority for me at first. It took about 6 months for me to really get in "make an album" mode but even then it was slow going.
Is this the first recording you've made where you play pretty much all of the instruments? What was that like?
Actually the Mathlete album "Telstar Parthenon" was about 90% me for the recordings, so this wasn't too big of a change. I've been recording stuff by myself, without a band, since around 1995 when I bought my first 4 track. I love having total control and going at my own speed. Democracy doesn't work in rock n' roll....you know that.
"I Drive Alone" is an addition to the historical intersection between rock and roll and cars. What is it about rock music and cars that makes them go hand in hand?
Cool question. I do a lot of thinking when I drive by myself. As I say in that song, "It's therapeutic, become one with the road"...ya, know...it's a good time for me to yell at myself, listen to my own songs, think about all kinds of stuff really....after that I can come home and write some lyrics hopefully.
In the song "An Anthem," you express the desire to someday write a rock anthem that people will remember; what do you think makes up a good anthem? What elements does an anthem need?
Awh see, ya missed it. that song IS the anthem...get it?
You're doing a solo tour soon--what's it like touring as a one-man rock band? Do you bring drum machines and such along to fill out the sound?
Well, as of right now (March 14, 2002) I've only played one solo show. So basically, the solo tour was booked before I had even tried it out. I had a great time though. I got to play my first solo show with the mountain goats (one-man band if you're not familiar). It was cool to watch how John operates up on stage by himself. I learned quite a bit that night. See, the s/t CD has lots of drums on it and such. Most songs sound kinda like a full band. My prob was that I kept saying crap like "if you don't like the solo stuff you should buy the album...it sounds like a band." GOD! what was I doing! It shoulda been "if you like what I'm doing here on stage, please buy the album cuz what your hearing is the minimal but extremely necessary foundation on which all the sounds on the CD were based off of." So, if you were at that show and didn't buy a CD because of my idiotic ramblings....sorry...have faith in me. I know what I'm doing?
Tell me about the New Constitution, your other band. I listened to the two songs on mp3.com, they sound great. You're trading off lead vocals with someone else, is that right? Who is in the band? How would you describe your sound? Do you have any recordings yet?
Yeah, for me I love having the situation where I can do all my solo crap and not worry about what anybody else thinks and also, at the same time, be in a full functioning rock band that attempts to work on songs together. It's definitely having your cake and eating it too. But, The New Constitution is a 4 piece rock n' roll band consisting of myself on guitar/vocals, Dan Brown on bass/vocals, Dan Marsden (from Mathlete) on drums and Mike Marsden (from the live version of Mathlete) on guitar. We split the song writing although Dan writes a lot faster than I do. Please go to our mp3 site if you're interested.... www.mp3.com/the_new_constitution. We're working on our first release which will come out on Audello records. Should be out this fall.
Since the Mathlete web site address is now the National Splits web site, I'm assuming Mathlete is no more?
Yeah, Mathlete pretty much died around the time I quit Wolfie. You can get to the Splits site 2 ways....www.prairienet.org/mathlete or www.prairienet.org/nationalsplits. I left it that way so all of the people that clicked on a Mathlete link would be forced to see what I was doing musically these days.
When did you first start playing an instrument? Writing songs? What other bands were you in before Wolfie, if there were any?
I started playing guitar freshman year of high school...which would be around 1991 I guess. I started writing songs prolly around 1993 in my first band in high school and then really got involved in it right after high school when I bought a 4track w/ graduation money. Wolfie was the first band I was in that put out an album that was actually distributed, toured, etc...
I think I read about an upcoming National Splits EP, is that right? What can you tell me about that? Do you have any other releases coming up?
It's a 7" EP on Bumblebear records. It's finished and all pressed and everything. Check out my website for info on where to order it if ya want. The EP was done right after I finished the s/t CD. It's a bit more acoustic and country-tinged than the album, but it's a closer representation to what my solo shows will be like as opposed to the CD. I'm very proud of it...definitely. As for the future, I have no idea what label I'll put stuff out on but the Splits is something I plan on continuing for quite some time.
On your web site, there's a tour diary, from a tour with Kleenex Girl Wonder, where you mention taking a GBV pilgrimage to Dayton. Being a completely obsessed GBV fan myself, I must ask: what's your favorite GBV/Pollard release, and why?
That was so cool to bum around all the locations you hear about in his songs. It was kinda magical in a sense if you're really into them like I am. But we didn't wanna seem like stalkers so we made our prowling very short. The album that turned me onto GBV, like a lot of people prolly, was Alien Lanes...and then Bee Thousand. Although the new line up is more mechanically talented I totally dig the classic early/mid 90's GBV line up. I'm also a huge Tobin Sprout fan. I can't say enough about his Moonflower Plastic record. So good.
One last question: If there's an album, live performance or movie that really blew you away recently, please tell us what it was.
Well, my favorite album of 2001 was The Flashing Lights Sweet Release. Amazing record...and they completely blew me away live. They've got the total package. I'd also put the Beachwood Sparks into the same category.