I am sitting beside Mike O’Neill on stage at a songwriter’s circle in Fredericton, New Brunswick and he is singing. Some of the most awkward times to be on stage are when you have nothing to do while sitting in front of a crowd like an unlikely royal family member and I am staring down at the floor while listening. I hear the voice I have listened to for decades singing a new melody while accompanying himself with a guitar that I distinctly notice isn’t as nice as it should be. Mike O’Neill has been performing and creating music for more than 20 years and as I look down at his foot, I notice it is shaking uncontrollably. His life has been steeped with music yet he has nerves today.
He sings songs about relationships that never actually happened, yet, sound so real. He tells jokes about caustic television directors. He is comical and has the crowd on his side. When he finishes, it is my turn. My mind is still singing his song. His song is still in everyone’s mind.
A 10 Year old boy is laying in his bed listening to the radio. He is on the hockey team but isn’t very good. He has bad ears and is smaller than his athletic brothers. He goes to church on Sundays and feels guilty when they don’t. He tinkers with the souvenir ukulele that his parents brought back from a trip to Hawaii. He has opened his radio and attached it’s tiny wires to several larger speakers that he salvaged from old TVs in order to make the sound more complex. With each added speaker connected to his headboard he imagines a new layer to the broadcasted radio waves that come out. Today is December 10th, 1980 and John Lennon is dead. He was shot and killed a couple nights ago which means the radio stations are playing the Beatles music all day and all night. On this day, the boy is captured by something the world had experienced two decades before, Beatlemania.
John Lennon’s voice is screaming “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon Baby now” as Twist and Shout shoots from the boy’s crudely fused speakers. He is staring into infinity. He is convulsing with a rare, innocent, nervous kind of laughter. The music is coursing through his little body as his mind wrinkles and shudders at the sense of sound for the first time. This boy has not yet learned to be embarrassed by the elation of being carried away like this, for now, the electricity is running through him as the framework of songs and melodies are cementing in his brain.
Two weeks later, his older brother brings home two Beatles records, Twist and Shout and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the boy steeps himself in the Twist and Shout record for the immediacy and instant appeal of the pop songs. He studies their catalogue, he learns all the lyrics, although his voice hasn’t changed he can imitate Lennon’s vocal style. The boy follows his crush on her paper route so he can sing Beatles songs to her, sentimental ones that capture the wafting innocence that halos them as they walk.
The boy is Mike O’Neill. Someday, years from now, he will start a band, tour the world, and have his songs played on radio across the globe.
The sea water spanning the coast of Greece seems more blue due to the contrast of blocky white buildings stepping up the hill behind the film shoot. He is daydreaming when he is supposed to be monitoring sound levels. The lights are blinking in front of his eyes but his mind is elsewhere. Remembering: thirteen years old and fashioning a drum kit from old pails and fertilizer bags on his family farm, twenty- five and meeting the real “Guitar George” from the song Sultans of Swing, thirty-five and carefully assembling an LA2A compressor, and on and on. He is physically on the island of Karpathos but he is splintered in time and space. His attention is divided but that is when his thoughts open up. He is a location sound engineer on a movie set and he is writing an album in his mind.
The filming is done for the day so he takes a little travel guitar to the beach, a melody has been in his head all day, he has the words, “This is the sound of being there, this is the sound of pushing up the chairs.” He knows it is good and has the patience to let the song come to him. Neko Case and Dave Grohl are notable fans of his music, he doesn’t have to hurry. The song waits for now, just like all sorts of projects he has been working on: radio plays, screenplays, theme songs, film scores, and sketches. He writes all of these, but for now, he is a location sound engineer composing a pop song in the sand by the Mediterranean.
A fight is almost breaking out at The Toucan in Kingston, Ontario. It is December, 1991 and the Rheostatics will soon release their critically acclaimed third album, Whale Music. The venue is a narrow long room and the show has been oversold. The owner steps up to the microphone and tells the crowd “ Sorry folks, we’re overcapacity, show’s cancelled.” Dave Clark, the drummer of the Canadian art-rock quartet, immediately grabs the mic and declares “Oh no it’s not brother! You can’t do that to these people. We came here to play.” The place goes wild, some people leave, others demand the show go on and after a lengthy wait, The Rheostatics finally take the stage.
The anticipation, a packed room, heart rates, and a road tested Rheos flared and soared that night. Somewhere in the crowd Mike O’Neill, now a young student of Queen’s university, stands and sees majesty in Martin Tielli’s guitar playing as it is woven with Clark’s drums. They are on fire tonight and they have sparked a desire inside the young student’s mind to begin something he had never considered.
Within a couple years, Mike O’Neill would become the front man and songwriter for his own 2 piece band, The inbreds. Over the next few years they would be touring, making music videos, as well as the object of a bidding war between two labels.
When the car brakes, the car turns off. The gas gauge doesn’t work, nor does the heater, and there is a crack along the entirety of the windshield. The two bandmates were promised a ride in the van from the west coast, over the Rockies, and across the prairies on a tour together with The Rheostatics. The Rheos manager has fumbled the arrangement and with no room in the van for The Inbreds, they are sitting in a dilapidated 1979 Mustang that needs to carry their bodies over the rugged western 4,440 km. The Rheostatics van is nowhere to be seen as the duo weave up through empty long weekend roads in the $200 death trap. It is the wintertime of the band’s career and they both know it, this trip is an unsaid farewell tour. They have been friends since High School. White knuckles are holding the steering wheel and there is worry in their stomachs as they reach Roger’s Pass alone. So many potential endings all at once.
The inbreds were formed out of friendship and chemistry. It all happened in one night as the drummer, Dave Ulrich, and Mike O’Neill created over a half dozen songs in a single sitting. Ulrich, who was inspired by other independent canadian bands, worked the business side and asked O’Neill to write the songs. After their first EP was played on CBC’s Brave New Waves they were jumpstarted with opportunities to tour, record, and be heard.
Their albums were composed of riffy distorted bass lines, steady drumming, and hyper melodic layered vocals, often adding whatever the songs needed for accompaniment to fill out the arrangement. By 1998, the band had run it’s course and after four studio albums and years of touring with the biggest acts in Canada they were finished. With fans all over the globe they ended at their peak.
I am following a jumbled storyline, through anecdotes and analogies, I lose sense of time while losing track of time. I have been having a conversation for nearly 3 hours in a bar with Mike O’Neill. “My obsession with old gear has something to do with understanding why music connects with me. It could be that there is something about the gear they used. When a recording cuts through to me, I see that as part of the strongest connection of communication.” He is gracious and wise in conversation. He speaks in parables. Sorting through his experiences and finding truth, an earned truth that makes the tangental stories valuable and engaging. He knows about the transformers in mixing boards, the pre-war picking style of american blues guitar, the Beatles demo of A Day in the Life, and a wealth of historical, practical and technical details.
To me, O’Neill is a character who is a part of the Canadian musical geography I grew up with. His voice and songwriting are part of the primordial mess of influences for anyone of my generation. After two decades of making recordings I can’t help but wonder why he has continued when so many have drifted off.“The thing about music is that there is something in it for everybody. Music is for people who want to dabble in business, people who want to get up and perform live for other people, it’s for people that want to write words, it’s for people who want to pay tribute to bands they love, and it’s for people who just need to do it because if they don’t it will make them crazy. It’s an outlet. I need to write music, and if I don’t I will be hard to get along with by the people around me.”
Seeing the circuitry and wires as part of his medium, O’Neill has spent as much time on collecting and building gear as writing the songs, both sides of his brain lighting up when he records himself. “No one’s just a musician, my expression of music is tied up in the engineering side of it. If I was working on a piece of music and I nail it, i feel like retiring for the rest of the day because it brings me so much happiness. I feel high from it. It’ s the closest I get to letting myself celebrate something. “
The new album Wild Lines is not a stylistic departure but a continuation of a steady artistic voice. Pop-rock songs with stratum of harmonies and timeless lyrics roll through the upbeat album. “There are recordings out there that transcend time, that are perfect recordings, I think that’s what I’m after, the perfect 2 minute song. I also just want to write stuff that is relevant for forever and is real. I’m weird that way, I want to rock out and be raw but when i’m writing in the quiet of a studio setting then I tend to make things very poppy and melodic. I definitely have a sugary pop side that sometimes I am in denial of but always seems to rear it’s head with these collections of songs I write.”
Mike O’Neill’s third solo release, Wild Lines, is a gathering of musical wisdom and sonic contemplation. It is an arrival and a statement of honesty, it’s been a long time coming in more ways than one.