There are hidden gems all over this city, and on any given night you may encounter a star-in-the-making like I did late last year when I caught the last few songs of Mike Liegel’s set at The Bowery Electric. Being it was a Tuesday evening, barely past 7pm in October, I expected an empty room; but what I got instead was a full-house and an unknown band ripping it up on the stage. Instantly, I was drawn to the massive, yet soothing voice that was coming from a young, good looking guy who was fronting the band. After seeing his last two songs, I knew full well this young cat had all the makings of a superstar so put it in my mind to keep him on my radar.
Fast forward a 1/2 a year, to a warm early spring day, where I met up with an upbeat Mike Liegel on the Hoboken waterfront for an in-depth interview about how he got started and where the future may lead.
We’ll start from the beginning; How did you start playing music?
My parents pushed me into taking piano lessons. And then I learned all the basics, how to read music, but reading music wasn’t really for me. I started making little chord progressions and little shitty songs and did that for a couple of years. And then in 8th grade I stopped completely and went full into baseball, and received a scholarship to NJIT. I went there for a year, but didn’t really like the school that much and wanted to move on. I ended up blowing up my arm in a bullpen session, right before heading up to play for the Brockton Sox. The injury wasn’t something surgery would fix, so opted not to have it. I ended up taking a year off and getting my associates degree.
In that time-frame I was playing the piano again and started writing songs – and the songs I was writing I guess, were becoming a lot better. Probably from the music I was listening to like the Beatles and classic rock. At school, I became friends with some kids doing music recording and business and it really interested me. I took some courses and the recording stuff came quick to me and started making demos at my house. I convinced (a bit of begging) my dad, who’s a firefighter and a good carpenter, to build a recording-studio in the back yard of our house.
After a few years of making demos I found a manager who I had invited to the studio to listen to some stuff like “Be There” and he loved it – Joe Hiddemen, who works at Warner Brothers, ended up inviting me to his office and told me he could guide me and be my manager. Through that, I got hooked up with my producer Andrew Seltzer and went into Brooklyn and over the last 2 years we’ve structured the songs better and fine-tuned the tunes that make up my new EP, Stick Around, that comes out on 5-12-17.
The EP is very full sounding, who helped play on the album?
Andrew played the bass and would do the drums and guitar demos. And his brother Greg, who’s a classically trained guitarist, did the solos for “Lovely” and everything. For “Stick Around” one of Andrew’s friend’s, Carson Cody, who’s a really good organist and has perfect-pitch – he came in and did the Wurly and the organs and helped flesh it out.
“Stick Around” was the first song we did and explored with a lot of older sounds in a way, but poppy. I told him I wanted to put that sound, that warmness with a little pop, over all the songs on the EP. Kinda from there we pushed more into the pop-soul sound with all the songs working together.
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It seems that most of the topics in the songs on the EP are deeply personal – where do you pull that from?
For me, I just start singing or whistling and from that melody line I’ll try to out random words into it. I try to get that first phrase – I think the first sentence of a song is what grabs you in, is the most important. From that I try to think of a scenario – I knew this record was going to be about love.
So, the EP has an overall theme of love?
Yes. The desire of wanting the girl and then eventually getting the girl, most of the songs are kind of like that. For my song “Be There,” on the piano, that one was when I was in the stages of wanting my girlfriend I’m with now and the feeling that came within me; that song means the most to me. I really like playing it alone with just the piano.
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Talking about “Pop-Soul,” who may you look up to or borrow from, to create that warm-sound?
When I listen to music, I put on something different every day, but have that general group I love. I’ll listen to the Stones because I love Mick Jagger and the way that he presents his lyrics. I’ll listen to Stevie Wonder because the way he writes his music and the soulful-vibe. I have a record player in my studio and have about 500 albums and each day I put on different things.
In listening to those records every day, does it inspire your own writing?
That’s usually how I’ll start a writing session – I’ll have a chord-progression or something I’m working with and think ‘what mood is this or what does it remind me of?’ so I’ll put on a record I might think that is similar. I’ll listen to it and the way it’s structured and where their coming from and then emulate it without copying them and with my own vibe. I feel like listening to soulful – or even up-tempo or completely different music – I might get one little thing I like and help me explore a different avenue.
Where you have a sports background at a high-level, does any of that competitiveness transfer into the music world? Do you have any rituals?
When I played baseball, I’d be hitting off the tee, catching and working-out everyday – working hard. That transfers over musically for sure, I think that since I’m newer at music I want to practice more. I tend to have at least 5-8 hours of show practice. A month before the show I’m already playing piano, doing vocal-exercises every day. I think staying consistent is the key for me. I definitely feel the competitive drive, even now for my show in a month – I just want to get on that stage and jam out.
What are your goals for this year?
Working on creating a buzz, try get Spotify plays up, try to get more shows, trying to play Philly, Boston, and the Carolinas. We’re going to do a trip out to L.A. in the summer to play some shows out there. Just want to grow, spread out and want to focus on the live-shows aspect.
Since we are Pancakes And Whiskey, we must ask – Do you have a favorite whiskey?
I like Booker’s – I’m a bartender so I’ve tried them all. I love pancakes too.
Article/Photos: Shayne Hanley