Interview with Mike Wheeler (rhythm guitar/lead singer)
Every so often, one is lucky enough to witness something special onstage. Something before the crowds take up all the prime real estate at a show, something you take pride in introducing others to before they find out for themselves. Greyspoke, a five-piece rock outfit from Burlington, Vermont, is one of those bands. Forming as teenagers, the quintet has gone beyond high school, chasing rock stardom across the northeast as they enter not only adulthood, but the next phase of their promising careers.
Garret K. Woodward: What is “Greyspoke”?
Mike Wheeler: Greyspoke comes from variations on a couple of our names. Grey comes from Rudy’s [Kiburis (bass)] middle name, Grason, and spoke comes from my last name, Wheeler. We liked the sound of it and it felt original. Some other names up for vote were Umbrellaphant, Stained Glass Water Factory, 4 Minute Pasta, and other equally miserable high school inspired appellations. Apparently there is a character named Brink Greyspoke from the Brian Jacques fantasy series Redwall, but we found that out later.
GKW: How would you describe the sound? Who are the influences?
MW: That’s always a hard question, but if forced to answer we usually boil it down to funky psychedelic rock n’ roll. Even though sometimes it’s Americana-rock and other times it’s jazz. We listen to lots of classic vinyl and all of us are big fans of the Grateful Dead, Little Feat, The Band, Steely Dan, Allman Brothers, Ween, The Brother’s Johnson, Michael Jackson, Derek Trucks, The Beatles, Radiohead, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, Neil Young, Pat Metheny, Gram Parsons, and David Bowie among others. We draw on all of these influences, as well as some gypsy jazz, honky-tonk, bluegrass, psychedelic and heavy rock.
GKW: What does improvisational music mean to you? How does it affect your approach to the band?
MW: We are all jazz fans, and love experimental rock. Each of us set about our roles within a song as part of a five-piece ensemble, paying special attention to dynamics, where each musical voice is distinct and purposeful. While we take songwriting seriously, when it comes to playing live, or even for ourselves, we like to explore what the songs can offer by extending solo sections and improvising as a group. On one night a song might be five minutes long, and another night that same song could last 12 or 15 minutes. With improvising we find it’s better suited to react than overact, so it has to feel right to stretch it out that far. And when everyone is clicking we let the song go for a full ride.
GKW: How did the band come about? When? Where? Why?
MW: Greyspoke started in southern Vermont. Our four original members went to high school together at Burr and Burton Academy. Rudy and I had actually known each other from the ages of 7 and 9, respectively. We started with a few afterschool jam sessions, played through the summer, and shared a lot of common music interests. The friendship was there, so we kept playing. In the fall of 2003 we took a Rock Ensemble class where we were able to practice every day for an hour and a half in our own rehearsal space, in the basement of our arts center. That was a great way to get into good practicing and writing habits, under the guidance of our teacher Neil Freebern, who was super supportive and helpful. We would spend our weekends hanging out together, taking ‘scenic’ drives, and jamming as much as we could. We started playing house parties, and recorded a demo. We thought it would end after graduation, but didn’t want to leave it behind and kept going through college. So, here we are, six years later. Leon [Campos (keyboards)] joined about two years ago, and Sean [Preece (drums)] hopped on the kit this past summer. With the new lineup solidified we have been working on a lot of new material, and we’re excited with this new direction.
GKW: What are your thoughts on the current music industry? How do you want Greyspoke to be different, or contribute to the evolution?
MW: It feels like the live concert isn’t as sacred a ceremony as it once was. There is a bit of an oversaturation of music now with iPods, downloads, phone apps, and so on. It would be great to emerge as a live act that people get off the couch to see, and to get people moving in a communal gathering. We would love to contribute to the longevity of the live music experience.
GKW: How receptive have audiences been to your creation onstage?
MW: Audiences have been very receptive to our music, especially in the past few months. We have been locking in on some much tighter and more exploratory realms with our live playing and improvising, and the energy seems to be translating very well to the crowd. There is nothing like releasing the tension of a long musical phrase at the perfect moment and having a crowd yell, or leap up with their arms in the air while letting go of their inhibitions together.
GKW: Why do you like playing in the North Country (Upstate New York and Vermont)? What’s your dream venue to play?
MW: We have a great time playing in the North Country, and for us that means not only Burlington (VT), Johnson (VT), and surrounding areas, but upstate New York as well. We have a big following in the Potsdam, NY area. Whereas in Burlington you have a ton of live music all the time, upstate New York is relatively starved for entertainment, so they tend to really flip out when we come around. Considering how much music there is in Burlington, it’s great that we are able to continually draw good crowds, and we usually see lots of new and old faces at our shows. People have a real passion for music in these parts. A dream venue would definitely be Red Rocks in Colorado. On the smaller scale, any major festival, or a foreign country. We joke about Russia sometimes.
GKW: What do you want the listener to ultimately witness or walk away with when they see you perform?
MW: Hopefully the listener has a slight ringing in their ears, a sweaty something, and a shit-eating grin on when they walk away. And with any luck, the band energy and interplay will move them the right way, whether to dance, head bang, nod, or smile. Crying and ripping clothes off are allowed too.
GKW: What’s on the horizon for the band?
MW: This winter we are finally going to record our debut album. We shelved a previous effort for various reasons, namely timing and a lineup change. This winter, and especially in the spring, we are fairly busy touring around the northeast, playing in some new towns and venues. Other goals are to have someone booking for us, a van, a lighting rig, another album and maybe a record deal. Just be a successful touring band.
GKW: Thoughts on your next performance?
MW: Our next performance is the Blue Mermaid in Portsmouth, NH the day after Christmas (2009). It will be an interesting test of DIY promotion in a new town on a somewhat odd day. So there is a challenge to get some bodies in the building. As far as the music goes, we’ll all be well fed and ready to shed the Christmas-dinner sweaters for some boogying boots.