Jersey Beat Music Fanzine

New Jersey lost a bit of its soul when the sax-and-guitar fueled garagepop combo the Everymen disbanded in 2017 and frontman Michael Venutolo-Mantovani - known affectionately as Michael VM or sometimes just Mike V - relocated to North Carolina. James Damion loved Mike's 2017 solo album The Happiest Man On Earth and decided to check in. Mike talks about his new home in the Deep South and his memories of New Jersey, revisits some Everymen stories, and starts by talking about how he once got paid to shop for records.

Interview by James Damion

Q: The idea to do an interview with you came after watching the Amoeba Records YouTube series called “What’s In My Bag?” that featured you and fellow Everymen Catherine Herrick. I’ve been regularly watching the segments for over a year and I think you might be the first person appearing in the series that I’ve actually met. Long question short: Can you give a little background on how the whole thing is set up and if Amoeba gives you your selection free, or at a deep discount for your time?

I guess they wanted to feature the two singers of the band. But our record label had set that up for us when we were on tour supporting Givin’ Up on Free Jazz. What happens is they give you a bit of store credit to shop with and then you talk about what you bought. But I went way, way over my credit. I think I had like $100 of credit to spend. I ended up spending over $300 on top of the $100 credit. Which was usually my record buying budget for an entire tour. Set me free in a record store for several hours and I guess that’s bound to happen. It was like a bucket list rock 'n' roll dream to do a “What’s in my Bag?” That was one of the highlights of my years with the band for sure.

Q: During the segment, you talk up the band Archers of Loaf. The comment “They make the Beatles look like the Osmond’s.” had me rolling on the floor. Being a huge fan of the Archers, who’s seen them live and used to have a poster hanging in my NYC apartment. Being one who’s always connected with people through music and would almost immediately latch on to someone due to a mutual love for a band or an artist. I wanted to get the specifics on what originally drew you and still draws you to The Loaf.

Ha! Good, I’m glad you got a chuckle. I don’t really remember how I discovered the Loaf. Probably the same way we all used to find new jams; someone must have put a Loaf tune on a mixtape or maybe I heard them in a movie or on a skate video. I used to watch Mallrats on almost a daily basis when I was in high school and they were on the soundtrack to that flick, in the lingerie scene, so maybe then? But I’m pretty sure I had Icky Mettle and Vee Vee before I’d ever seen that movie. So, in short, I have no idea when. But what drew me to the band was the fact that I had absolutely no idea what was happening there musically. The chords they were using, the keys and tunings they were writing in, it was all so antithetical to what was going on in so many other bands I was into at that point. I mean, I couldn’t play like J Mascis but at least I could wrap my head around what he was doing. With the Loaf, it was like guitar stuff from Mars. Discovering bands like them and Pavement, Polvo, Blonde Redhead, Slint, all those bands around the same time, it really stretched my understanding of what could be done with a guitar. It fucking blew my mind. It still blows my mind.


Q: Did you grow up in New Jersey? If so, where? What was the last city/town you lived in before moving to Chapel Hill?

I am a born, bred and flag-waving Jersey Boy. I was born in Belleville, just outside of Newark, and lived in Jersey City when I was very young. My mother grew up there and we had tons of family in and around Hudson County. But when I was a little boy, we moved down the shore to a little town called Little Egg Harbor. That’s where I grew up. It’s a tiny little clamming village right on water, across the bay from the southern tip of Long Beach Island. I definitely had beef with it when I was a kid, desperately wanting to get to a big city, namely New York. But in hindsight, I realize what an amazing place it was to be a kid. To grow up right on the ocean, to have the Pine Barrens in our backyard, as our playground. It was amazing. But virtually every kid hates where they live. They all think there’s so much better out there. Which is why I moved to Philadelphia the day after I graduated high school. I had to get out and I couldn’t do it fast enough. After five years in Philly for college and a brief stint teaching English in Rome, I moved to Jersey City for a time, and then to New York. I lived in various neighborhoods in Brooklyn for a few years (Clinton Hill, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Greenpoint). Eventually, my wife and I (then boyfriend/girlfriend) moved to the corner of Delancey and Allen Streets on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Of all the places I’ve ever lived, the LES felt most like home. That was our last spot before moving to the South. And if we ever hit the lottery, the first thing we’ll do is buy that old apartment on Delancey and Allen. It was barely six-hundred square feet but we had each other and we had a great record collection. What else did we need?

Q: Speaking of Chapel Hill, what was it that drew you to and or inspired you to move there?

I started touring a bit in college but a lot more when I got out of school. I always loved this area. The food was great, the people were unbelievably kind, and the weather always seemed to be perfect (and other than a handful of rainy days each year and maybe one very minor snowfall, all of those things remain true). I obviously had a rosy picture of it from the indie rock legends of Merge and Archers and Superchunk and Polvo and Pipe and Ben Folds Five, all of the killer music that always seemed to come out of this little town that you can’t find on a map. Plus, as a kid, I was a big Carolina basketball fan (Michael Jordan, obviously, but when we were kids, it was all about Vince Carter, Jerry Stackhouse, Dante Calabria, Antawn Jamison and Eric Montross). So, this place was always kind of mythical for me.

After about a decade in New York, when my wife and I decided to get out, we chose here. She grew up a few hours down the highway in Charlotte but, like me, left home soon after she finished high school and hadn’t really been back but to visit in almost twenty years.

Q: Being that it’s a college town, I would imagine that the area births a lot of new music acts. Are you keeping up with any new music? Perhaps finding inspiration.

I do keep up, yeah. I actually started a little record label with my dad called Suah Sounds. We focus on bands and artists from the Triangle (Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh, as well as the little enclave of Carrboro, which is surrounded on all sides by Chapel Hill).

I can’t say I go to many shows these days, as we have a two-year-old son at home. So that keeps me from hanging around the regular haunts except for shows I make a point to go see. Also, I’m making a living as a freelance writer these days and I generally start my workday between 5:30 and six in the morning in order to be able to spend as much of the afternoon as possible with my son. Thus, I’m not out past sundown too often anymore. Unless we’re out looking at the moon, which he is obsessed with. But I do keep very close tabs on what’s happening out there. And that’s kind of what birthed the Suah label. Wanting to keep myself in the mix, wanting to help people bring their art to the world and wanting to work alongside my father.

My father recently retired and has always been a devout music fanatic. He’s been playing in bands since he was like thirteen or fourteen. But he never really put out his own records or had any experience with a label. So with my experience in the record business and some of his pension money ;) we started the label together. In fact, we just put out his first record of original music. I’m super jazzed that he got the chance to do that. First and foremost, it’s been great to do something like this alongside my old man, to show him the inner workings of this thing that he’s been so passionate about for his entire life. But it’s also given us an opportunity to give a platform to local artists that we believe the world needs to hear. Of course, it’s not a very big platform. But we do our best to help amplify the art they’re creating.

Q: I’ve known a lot of people who eventually move down south seeking a warmer climate and perhaps a better life. That said, one can’t help but envision Confederate flags, AR-15’s, trucks with gun racks, and country music blaring from every speaker. Am I way off?

Eh. That shit’s everywhere, man. If there’s one thing I learned touring, it’s that country is everywhere. There’s just as much country in New York as there is in Alabama. Shit, maybe I didn’t even need to go on tour to learn that. The town I grew up in right there on the Jersey Shore is this strange little ultra-conservative outpost where people would fly Confederate flags all the time. I mean, there used be kids in my high school with bumper stickers that read, “The South Will Rise Again.” The South? Which South? South Jersey?

Anyway, yeah, sure there are flag-waving sons of the South with their carbines slug across their backs pumping that bullshit bro country all over the place down here. But those people are everywhere, not just the South. Maybe growing up where I did, prepared me for a life in the South. I guess I kind of had a primer for it. My wife (who was born and raised in the South) often jokes that I’m more Southern than her. Maybe it’s because I’m a nut for NASCAR.

Chapel Hill is at the western edge of the Triangle. Everything east of us—Durham, Apex, Cary, Raleigh—tends to be very liberal, probably because it’s full of northeastern transplants, many of whom have advanced degrees and who work in the university, tech or medical fields. And those people tend to be more liberal. But get in my truck (yes, I drive a truck. No gun rack but I do have lots of Dale Earnhardt ephemera), drive ten minutes to the west and you’ll find yourself in the deep red South. Ten minutes from Chapel Hill, one of the most liberal parts of the South I’ve ever seen, and you’re in deep red country.

But North Carolina is a lot more purple than people give it credit for. Most of the big urban areas like Charlotte and Raleigh and the college towns like Chapel Hill, Durham, Asheville and Boone tend to be a lot more blue ideologically. What that leads to is a state that really is diverse in thought and action. And one the coolest parts for me was voting in 2018. For the first time in my life, I was voting in a state where my vote really, truly mattered. That is to say that no matter how you vote in New York or New Jersey, those are blue states. Vote conservative all you want (trust me, people in Little Egg Harbor do) but Jersey is going to be a blue state. Same with a place like Alabama. I was making my solo record during the 2018 election in Muscle Shoals and I remember all the guys I was in the studio with going and voting, presumably for Hillary Clinton. In Alabama. She’s never going to win Alabama.

But down here, I cast a vote thinking how our state could swing either way, thus, how important each and every vote was. Sadly, the bad guy won. But it was a damn hell of a thrill nonetheless. I wish every American could feel the way I did when I cast that vote (and it’s one of the biggest reasons I advocate for a popular vote and the abolition of the electoral college, but that’s a different interview, methinks).

All that said, I love the South. And if there’s one thing I could tell people who are worried about the AR-15s and the Confederate flags and the gun-racked trucks, it would be that the South is not one contiguous backwater that starts in Delaware and ends in Texas. It’s an unbelievably nuanced, incredibly kind, tremendously beautiful place that, like anywhere else, is full of complicated history and complicated people.

Q: In regards to Chapel Hill, I’d love to talk about your solo album, 2017’s The Happiest Man On Earth. It was somewhat, if not a far departure from what you were doing with the Everymen. How much of an influence did living in Chapel Hill have on you? Though my reaction wasn’t immediate, it ultimately reminded me of a conversation with my Dad, who by the way, was a gifted pianist. He told me that he could always play the notes, but didn’t find the keys until he visited New Orleans and saw Dr. John and Leon Russel perform live. Was the album more of a reflection of who you always were or the influence of your regional surroundings?

I think most of the record was written before we’d moved down here. Maybe a bit here and there was written after our exodus from New York. But for the most part, I wrote that record on a little couch in our little apartment on Delancey Street on my acoustic guitar.

Sonically, it may have been a departure, sure. I mean, I definitely set out to make a quiet record with a lot, lot, lot more space than we always had with The Everymen. When it came to that band, it was full on wall of sound, cram every nook and cranny with as much noise, sound and action as we could. Maybe that was life in New York rubbing off on me. But the time I made the happiest man on earth, I think I was looking for that air, that room to breathe.

So, I don’t know if it’s a record about Chapel Hill as much as it’s a record about leaving New York. Except for the song, “Chapel Hill.” That one’s about Chapel Hill. Obviously. Well, it’s actually about convincing my wife to leave New York. Anyway.

But if you stripped all of the power away from The Everymen, you’d hear a lot of similarities in those songs. Conversely, if we ran the happiest man through a meat grinder and a Big Muff, it’d probably come out sounding a lot like The Everymen. The songs come from the same place. They just have different window dressing.

But as I said, I made that record down in Muscle Shoals with a bunch of Muscle Shoals players. And I think that had as much influence on the record as North Carolina and leaving New York did. My whole life, I’ve made music with people who have the same reference points as I do. Classic indie rock, punk, hardcore, Springsteen. So, to get into a studio with a bunch of guys who grew up on Prine and Dan Penn and Kristofferson, Arthur Alexander, Donnie Fritts and Spooner Oldham, to hear the way those references are filtered through those guys’ own life experiences and onto my songs, was a thrilling new experience for me. I could probably count the people who’ve listened to the happiest man on two hands. But for me, it was the most exciting record I’d ever made because it was so damn far out of my comfort zone.

Q: “Nothing Good Happens After Midnight” is without a doubt my favorite track on the album. It reminded me of something my step brother used to say to me all time. Can you tell me what the song means or meant to you and what you were referring to in the lyrics “And I can’t keep this pace.”?

Man, I’m glad you dig that one. I think it’s my favorite, too. That tune is actually a thank you note to my wife. She didn’t want to leave New York at first. It took me about six months to convince her that it was time to go. I still loved New York and, for the record, I still do love New York. But I just needed room to breathe. I needed space. Not just physical space but mental and emotional space, too. Keeping the pace, I guess that was a reference to how burnt out I was from The Everymen. We worked ourselves harder than just about any band out there. We were doing a hundred shows a year BEFORE we started touring. We would do crazy shit like go play one-offs in Cleveland or Raleigh only to turn around and drive right home after our set. Then, after a few years of booking and playing almost 200 shows a year, I was just toast. I was totally spent. In fact, now, almost four years after our final show, I’m still toast. It’s been really hard for me to muster the energy to book shows. In fact, I think I played maybe four shows total in support of the happiest man on earth. Good thing I wasn’t beholden to someone else’s label for that one. Anyway, that’s what that lyric is in reference to.

But there’s also a lyric in there that says, “There’s nothing left for me to do,” which is kind of exactly how I felt when we were leaving New York. Other than making a few million bucks, I had accomplished everything I came to New York to accomplish.

As for the title, it was something my football coach used to say in high school. Probably something all coaches say. Basically, make good choices, don’t be stupid. And though I loved our little apartment on Delancey and Allen, bear in mind it was just a few blocks away from what is pejoratively known as “Hell Square,” one of the most concentrated nightlife areas in Manhattan. That little cluster of bars, clubs and restaurants was madness from Wednesday through Saturday nights. Outside our window, all we heard were fights, ambulances, cops arresting people, heavy drama. It just always remined me of that saying. Nothing good happens after midnight. Unless you’re getting laid. But David Lee Roth probably wrote that song already.

Q: For myself and many others, the Everymen were a family and sort of a tribe, as much as you were an ensemble or a band. Would that be a correct observation? If so, was that the original plan or goal? How much input into songwriting and band related decisions did everyone have?

Absolutely we were a family. Heck, Scott and Jamie are brothers. You know. And me and Catherine, man she’s like a sister to me. She and I worked together at a record label for years, we lived together as roommates for a time, we spent years in the back of a van and in shitty dressing rooms and disgusting motels together. For many years, I spent more nights sleeping next to Catherine than I did my wife. I don’t know if that familial feeling was a goal, per se. But I really only want to play in bands with people that I want to hang out with. We never made much money doing what we were doing so, the way I always saw it was that you need to be surrounded by people you love and people who love you. The Everymen were one of the most drama- and stress-free bands I ever played in because everyone loved and respected each other’s needs and everyone knew their roles.

Band decisions were primarily mine but everyone had input. I kind of was a benevolent dictator in the band. I had the final say. But these were people who’ve been in bands their entire lives, who could play the hell out of their instruments, and whose musicianship and instincts I trusted. So, I was open to any and all suggestion and input at all times. Especially when it came to the music. I had ideas on what Scott might do on the sax or what Ryan Gross or Geoff Morrissey might do with a lead guitar part or what Catherine might do with a vocal. But in the end, they were brought into the band because of their ability with their instrument. So why would I get in the way of that? I’m not a sax player. I’m not a lead guitarist. You wouldn’t tell a mechanic the best way to fix your motor. Why would you tell a sax player the best way to play his horn?

As for the actual songwriting, I’d usually write a guitar part, vocal and lyrics (if I were to sing the song. If it was going to be a Catherine song, I’d leave the lyrics and vocal to her), as well as the overall arrangement. I likened it to a skeleton. I put the bones together. It was everyone else’s job to add the muscle, the fat and the skin.

Q: Did you see the name “The Everymen” to represent what you wanted the band to represent? By definition, protagonists in a musical sense?

Not really. It was just kind of a joke when the band first started. The Everymen were this imaginary band of square type dudes. Accountants or actuaries or something. Normies. But once they got on stage, they lit it up. I guess that was us, in a way. We were never super hip, super cool people. We were just kind of this band of misfits. Everymen. I guess we fit the name rather than the name fitting us.

Q: As an aging hardcore kid, I was curious as to why the Everymen decided to title your debut LP “New Jersey Hardcore.” What did the term mean to you and the band? Did it ever cause any confusion or resentment from anyone connected to that scene?

It was super tongue-in-cheek. More a reference to our unabashed love for where we come from (except Catherine. She’s a lifelong New York City girl). We weren’t playing New Jersey hardcore. We were New Jersey hardcore. I don’t know, maybe a comma would’ve helped. New Jersey, Hardcore. That sounds like too much of an inside joke though. Like something a Guy Fieri band would say.

Q: I was doing some backtracking when I realized I was, unknowingly at the time, your final Everymen show. I recall leaving before your set due to an emergency. At the time, had you already decided to disband?

Ah man, I’m sorry you had to miss it. I hope everything ended up okay for you. But yeah, that was announced and billed as our final show. Everyone there knew what they were showing up for. It was the party to end all parties! And then we spent the rest of the night getting fucked up at the Golden Cicada, RIP.

It was at WFMU’s live space, Monty Hall, which, as you know, is a BYOB spot. We had like a thousand bucks left in the band bank account and we figured that, seeing as we weren’t going to need it, why not give a little something back to our friends and fans. So we went to that beer/liquor store down by Home Depot, over near the Holland Tunnel, and we got a thousand dollars’ worth of beer. We bought these big buckets at Home Depot and filled them with ice and everyone at that show had beers on The Everymen. We were always a light-beer-and-a-shot kind of rockandroll group, a real beer-swiller’s band, so it made sense.

Q: It’s been proven that every good thing must come to an end. Especially with bands. Was there anything besides time and wanting to do something else that caused the break?

Yeah. It was our inability to find a booking agent. That was 100% the reason behind it. I mean, don’t get me wrong, we were burnt out, totally waxed after playing hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of shows in every single corner of the country. But we could have kept going if we had an agent. We had a great label in the Ernest Jenning Recording Co. We had a great publisher in Rough Trade Publishing and Bank Robber Music. But for me, booking all of those shows and tours all by myself, it just totally wore me out.

Not long before our final hurrah, we did a two-week run opening for our friends The War on Drugs. Drugs’ frontman Adam G had called me, asking if we could do that tour. There were no agents involved, no managers. Just one pal trying to help out another. The money was good, it was a super easy gig, the band and their crew treated us like gold. We didn’t have to argue with any shithead promoter kid or fucking jerkoff club owner about how much money we were owed at the end of the night. We played to captive audiences who quickly became fans of ours. We sold tons and tons of merch. It was perfect. If we had an agent that could have kept us going on tours like that for a year or two, letting us build our own audience without the stressors of booking tours and worrying about people showing up so we could put damn gas in the tank, I guarantee you we’d still be out there making records and touring harder than anyone.

But, for some reason, that was one piece of the puzzle we could never seem to sort out. So it is.

Q: What lies ahead for Mike V.? Do you plan on writing, releasing or being involved in music on any level?

I always be involved on some level. Right now, the Suah label is still in its infancy, still working on a one-release-at-a-time, fingers-fuckin-crossed, hope-we-can-earn-enough-to-make-the-next-one business model. Hopefully, it’ll be something I can do forever. If someday it yields me some income, great. But really my goal for the label is to just make enough money so I can keep helping people put their music into the world. Kind of a Cory Rayborn/Three Lobed Recordings model. I’m hesitant to call it a passion project because all projects should be passion projects. Why do anything if you’re not gonna do it with your heart, you know? Anyway, get off the soapbox, Mike.

As for making new music, absolutely. I think my days of the road dog touring machine I once was are over (though I still sneak on a tour or two here and there. Just last year, I went out for a few runs with Son Volt. I wasn’t playing with them, just working for the band. But there are few places I love being more than in the back of a tour van. For me, that’s home.) but I’m still always going to make records. I just wrote and recorded all of the music for the Suah Sounds Co-Isolation Sessions, which is being released on June 5 as a benefit to help the North Carolina Restaurant Workers Relief Fund, I’m sitting on an ambient piano record that I made shortly after my son was born that I’ll release as a white-label 12” someday soon, and I have a little rock and roll project that I was on the verge of unveiling before this lockdown hit.

Down the road, I’d love to get more into producing records. I’ve produced a good little handful of records that I’m real damn proud of. The problem is, I’m not an engineer. And a lot of bands operating on a small, DIY or indie rock budget only have the funds to pay a producer who can engineer rather than both. But someday. Heck, the dream is for me to someday produce all of the releases on the Suah label. But that’s if we can make it to our next damn record.

You can check out Mike's record label Suah Sounds here...

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