The life of a musician is hard. It’s a fact no one disputes unless you’re the current version of Beyoncé. So yes, in general the life is hard, even without considering where the artist hails from. Certain towns have become tailored to the industry, like New York, L.A., or Nashville. But in the humble city of Milwaukee, we’re still trying to figure that whole thing out.
I wanted to know what it’s truly like for a musician from Milwaukee to coexist in a country made of more qualified towns in the eyes of the industry. I had the chance to interview Mike Mangione from the band Mike Mangione & The Union just before their set at Bastille Days this past weekend.
Meet the band
First things first (I’m the realist). No, but for real, who is Mike Mangione & The Union? (For those of you who remember Chuck Mangione — yes, Mike is related. They're cousins.)
After Mike gave up his football career at the ripe age of 15, he decided he wanted to be a musician. Mike attended Marquette University, started out in Chicago, then moved to L.A. to pursue his dreams. He lived the cliché image — traveling in a van, his dog his only constant companion — until he returned to the Midwest to settle down with his then girlfriend, now wife.
Once in Milwaukee, Mike’s brother, Thomas, joined him and they quickly became a duo, both rocking guitars. But as stories often go — with a couple random bump-ins and right place/right time scenarios — the brothers found themselves rich with talented musicians and became a six-piece, with an upright bass, drummer, and an additional family affair in two sisters rocking their cello and violin. It was from these happenings that the band ultimately developed its unique “orchestral folk” sound.
“Once I started getting familiar with the instruments that were in the band,” Mike says, “I started catering the writing style to, you know, using strings as a melodic force in the band. And if the strings are supporting a certain melodic line, then I could change what I’m doing, we can change how the guitar is used.
“My brother [Thomas], who plays electric guitar, plays more of a ethereal, atmospheric style and that’s because it blends well with the strings. So, definitely like once we had the ingredients we decided what to make.”
Hitting the stage
Once they found their sound, performing was probably a good next step. Now, Milwaukee’s music scene may be up-and-coming, but it already lends itself nicely to the festival season that runs throughout the three months we’re not buried in snow. Mike says, “I love the festival seasons, but all the Milwaukee venues are pretty cool I think.”
And Mike has a point. While we have some cool festival spots, we also have an assortment of unique and intimate venues. “Festivals are just fantastic and it doesn’t get much better than that, but some clubs man, like specifically I would say like performance centers, places that really gear towards the performance so there’s nice seating, great sound, and an audience that is ready to take in an experience.”
That, he says, is unlike festivals. “We don’t like competing for attention because the music just isn’t good like that.”
The competition for sound is an interesting thing to think about. I mean, think about how loud Summerfest is. “Well I mean Summerfest can be good, but Summerfest is loud, it’s a very loud festival and the tendency to want to push it at Summerfest, that kind of goes against our strengths. So, as much as I’m appreciative of Summerfest, and we love playing it and we’re thankful that they always let us do so, it’s probably not the strongest fit for us. But I think we do well there, I’m not gonna bash them or anything.”
The Milwaukee thing
But what about when artists from Milwaukee leave? Do they get ridiculed for not being from a bigger town?
“We just did our last record in Los Angeles, and it’s funny because west coast people, and I remember this from when I lived in L.A., west coast people don’t understand east of California, no I should say east of Las Vegas. They don’t know where Milwaukee is, and they consider Chicago the east coast.
“So there’s a real disconnect with the rest of the country I think. Great stuff going on there though, but you know you do have some people that thumb their noses at the fact that we’re from Milwaukee, but that’s fine. That doesn’t bother me. This whole music career has been a battle against everyone else, so you’re kind of going up hill all the time. We have some great bands that come from here, so I’m not ashamed in any sense.”
There does seem to be one consistency among artists from Milwaukee — they’re all proud of this city — and we at Radio Milwaukee feel the same. That’s why we play at least one song from a local artist every hour. That’s why we do community stories and have a local band perform live at our 414 sessions every Thursday. We’re here to spread the love of this, in my opinion, extremely underrated city — a city that’s home to great bands like Mike Mangione & The Union.
Their next album is to be released sometime in 2015. They’re working on it with drummer Josh Collazo and bassist Seth Ford Young of Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros. Recording began in March in the legendary Ocean Way Studios in Hollywood, CA where Frank Sinatra had his studio. The project is being produced by Edward Sharpe’s producer “Linny.” Mike said working with Josh and Seth was a blessing as their talent level is at an indescribably high level.
Now, that’s a record I am excited to hear! Keep up the great work Mike, and we’re happy you gave up your dreams of playing football.