by Sally Cragin
I’d been serving on the Fitchburg School Committee for a year, when we invited the Massachusetts Board of Indoor Air Quality to do an assessment on our school buildings, some of which were nearly 50 years old, and needed infrastructural repairs (boilers, roofs, furnace work). Because our School Committee believes in total transparency, we scheduled a public presentation on the work, as reports generated by this department’s inspection were hundreds of pages long and very technical in scope. No one had done this kind of work in our school buildings before.
That evening, at one of our schools, in strode a tall, bearded guy wearing a copper-colored sharkskin suit, cowboy hat and boots (not your usual bureaucratic garb, believe me). He had absolute calm and precision when presenting the facts to our residents, which included that yes, our buildings were safe, and yes, roof repairs were recommended. He concluded by saying that he wished all districts were as proactive as ours, and when I thanked him after, he said, “Aren’t you Hal Cragin’s sister? We went to school together.”
**record scratch sound** Turns out this was Mike Feeney, whose other interests included creating compelling and dynamic sounds on his electric guitar that coalesced into songs that had the same hypnotic effect for me as Husker Du, Bad Brains (at adagio, versus scherzo time signatures), and DIY noisemasters. (Turns out he’s a student of sound-guru Roger Miller).
Once our school inspections were through, Mike and I embarked on a renewed friendship that included email, visits, and his annual appearance at Fitchburg’s DPW Day. This is a unique event put on by Public Works visitors, which I helped coordinate, where families and small children visit the truck yard and climb all over the equipment. Mike contributed abstract paintings to be displayed, and has been our “Troubador Among the Trucks” playing acoustic guitar (next gig: June 8, 2:00 to 5:00 pm, DPW Yard, Fitchburg).
In the years I covered music for the Boston Phoenix (1980-1989; local music 1984-1987), I’d found that some of the most interesting musicians had a wide range of obsessions. Roger Miller and paleontology; Ken Fields with music of the American South. Erik Lindgren and – well – everything. And so it is with Positive Negative Man, Mike’s band with bass player Pete Tomilloso and new drummer Ian Wilson. Their latest CD, Broken explores a variety of sonic environments – from raggedy-edged power(ful) pop to raw and frayed guitar skronk.
We had Broken playing in the car stereo for weeks, and found that repeated listening revealed a complexity of songcraft, as well as technical skill. Atop a blitz of fuzzified guitar and ringing overtones, both Mike and Pete are adept vocalists in a wide range of material on the current CD. The hooks in the songs came from unexpected places, and I found myself wanting to see the band live.
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Noise: Where does the name come from? (Positive Negative Man).
Mike: I wrote a song with that name. We were using Unrighteous Creature as our name, but there were objections from our former drummer. So Pete made the suggestion.
I was relieved since Unrighteous Creature is a typographical error playground. I got it from a line from the Spanish Inquisition sketch by Monty Python. “Unrighteous Creature, how do you plead?”
Noise: How easy is it to get gigs and build a following?
Mike: Finding gigs in the Internet age gets you access to venues and the chance of booking. Scouting out places and getting to know people to create a working relationship can’t be replaced by on-line interaction. It’s like any other relationship in your life, some happiness but a whole lot of failure.
Creating a following is the most difficult problem faced by bands who are trying to project their own ideas. One can create an on-line presence, but how to get people to click the play button is the trick. I believe that services like Pandora do a terrible service to new bands because you can’t get into the queue unless someone decides you are allowed into the queue.
Noise: What are the early “Positive” influences on you?
Mike: It starts with hearing the following songs in WRKO a long time ago. ”Fame” – Bowie, “Bohemian Rhapsody” – Queen, “Fox of the Run” – The Sweet, “ Love Is the Drug” – Roxy Music.
Then discovering I belonged to that third tribe that is “meh” about the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, but adore the Who and the Kinks.
Then I saw The Neighborhhoods live less than 10 feet away from me. I realized music was alive and organic, as opposed to distant, non-moving from the end of a stadium.
Then came Mission of Burma. I was/am a guitar student of Roger Miller of Mission of Burma.
I became interested with Roger as a teacher due to his Maximum Electric Piano phase of his career after Burma Mk.1 because of his use of treated piano combined with the use of electronic loop of musical phases as he played. He was the first to do this live that I had seen and it formed a great impression on me as to where to future of music lay. So the music is an amalgamation of all of those things, or the sum is greater than the whole, which is positive.
Noise: What was your best gig so far?
Mike: November, 2015, at the Last Safe & Deposit in Lowell, MA. Great sound man with good sound system and we were just on. Had a show at Club Bohemia with people dancing to the song “The Waste.”
Noise: What is the most UNLIKELY prompt you all used to write a song?
Mike: This one was a but of a puzzler, since it required a bit of self-examination. Of the songs on the debut album, “The Waste” is one that originally was prompted by my extreme dislike for bullies. It started its existence as a comment about how callers to talk radio shows would be verbally lacerated if there views did not coincide with that of the host(s). It was not a conversation, despite the appearance of the exchange of ideas. Then the concept of news broadcasters failing to report real news as opposed to pseudo- or worse, fabricated news, such as polls and opinions of alleged experts seeped into the lyrics. I find it alarming that what is in “The Waste” is now being played out on the national stage for all of us to see and unfortunately, not demand better.
So “The Waste” is a comment on all of the time, effort and cash that is actually a distraction from actual ideas. Debates are not shouting matches. How our election process has turned into the boasting dialogue more like between wrestlers instead of actual proposals of ideas is a shame and a harbinger of the future.
Noise: Can you describe your audience?
Mike: Anyone who walks in the door. Folks who are looking for a band that is creating music that is not sonic wall paper that are actually songs that do not have the typical party songs. I like Eno pre-Discreet Music.
Noise: What’s it like doing “DPW Day” in Fitchburg? You must be the only live musician to play among the trucks!
Mike: I do love doing DPW Day. You get instantaneous reaction from folks. Especially kids. The songs I do are from all the songs that I have written. Sometimes I will do something new on the spot. The real challenge is to play and walk at the same time. When playing onstage, you are limited in your space to move and you are tethered to your amp. Not interested in reproducing the scene from Spinal Tap where their wireless amps where picking up the air traffic control towers. With an acoustic guitar, playing and walking at first felt unnatural, but once that is done, your reach a rhythm. I did dent my acoustic on a snow plow blade one time. Hazard of this activity. I actually find it a treat and an honor to be asked to play. It is me giving back to the area I grew up in. Plus you never know who will like what you do.
Noise: Describe the songs you are trying to write…
Mike: I hope that our music is a throwback to a time when songs were written to be remembered as opposed to disposable commodity. Unfortunately we live in an age of pre-packaged sampled tones sung by either the latest pop tart or humorless men with auto-tuned voices who take themselves so seriously because they got a big bank and twitter accounts, but have nothing new to say.
So my song writing incorporates lots of things of interest to me: science fiction, astronomy, disasters and the subject of fairness. Many of the songs I have written have lots of references to many things, but the songs do have a link to the idea of relationships and fairness, or comments on the unfairness.
Woody Guthrie had an essential observation, is the bank robber with a gun any different than the banker foreclosing on a mortgage? The banker acts from the position or safety backed by the veneer of law and money. Where is the fairness in that?
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CODA: Favorite equipment (for the gear heads)
Guitars: Gretsch G3156, Burns Steer, Burns Flyte, DeArmond Jet-Star, Ovation Breadwinner.
Pedal Board/Effects: Intefax Harmonic Perculator, British Pedal Co. Buzzaround, Ross Phaser/Distortion, Xotic EP-1 Compressor, Lexicon Vortex.
Amp: Roland JC-120
Bass: Danelectro Long Horn Bass
Bass Amp: Ampeg B-15N Portaflex Fliptop