The name Mike Viola may not immediately jump off the screen, but for anyone who’s paid attention to the last couple of decades of rock and pop music, it’s likely they have come into contact with his work. The voice on that infectious titular tune from the film That Thing You Do? That’s him. The songs in the John C. Reilly vehicle, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story? Viola was one of the primary songwriters. Panic! At The Disco and Mandy Moore producer credits? They’re on his resume as well. This is just a minuscule sampling of the pies Viola’s hands have been in.
Viola got his start in the Boston-area rock scene of the ’80s. Gigging regularly as a barely teenage rocker, he would “play in Brockton on Wednesday, Billerica on Friday, Cambridge on Saturday, and then open up for somebody at a punk rock show on Sunday at The Channel.” With a workman’s template in tow, he amassed a long history of road dogging and knob turning. Viola is the Swiss Army Knife or rock and roll.
With eight full-length albums over the past two decades, Viola re-established his music on his own terms. Paul McCarthy, his latest endeavor, is a sort of personal renaissance. “This is the year that I’m going back to when I was 13 years old and I was just starting out,” Viola says, “I was getting in vans and I was playing shows and that’s exactly what I’m doing.”
Before Mike Viola plays at Cactus Club with Dusk on Saturday, October 21, he spoke with Milwaukee Record about his unexpected foray into film and production work, getting back on road, and putting in “a new set of 10,000 hours.”
Milwaukee Record: Do you think that That Thing You Do is what you’re most known for?
Mike Viola: No, I think that there’s different demographics, right? So someone your age? Yes. Somebody in high school would know me because of Panic! At The Disco. Somebody in Silver Lake, like, working at a coffee shop or some artisanal cheese shop or whatever would know me for the Mandy Moore stuff. For older people I think, yes, That Thing You Do, that’s what people know me for more than anything. But I’m so active that there’s all these different demographics of people that know me for stuff.
MR: How did you get into production?
MV: I think it just was a natural thing. I think the first real record that I produced that wasn’t mine was a record for this band called Rasputina. They were on Columbia and that was in the early ’90s. It’s actually three women that played cello. It was very goth and kind of borderline industrial. The leader of the band, the songwriter Melora, was in Nirvana. I met her like a year after Kurt died. She’s fantastic, still making music and everything. That was the first record and it was just an EP and I didn’t even know I was producing it. She was the one who told me, “Do you want me to pay you for all this production?” I was like, “What? I’m just hanging out with you, making music. You don’t have to pay me, but thanks for calling it that.” So that was sort of the first one, and I enjoyed it so much. It was just making music. Probably the next one I did after that was Mandy Moore. Then it just kind of snowballed.
MR: You’ve been involved with the music industry for close to 30-plus years at this point. How has your involvement with the industry evolved over that time?
MV: Well, I mean, I’ve done everything except manage and lawyer. I’ve even been an A&R guy. I did that for four years, so I got to know how the sausage is made. Where the bodies are buried and all those things. It’s evolved in a way that I think I’m less dependent on other people. I try and encourage my young friends that are coming up to be less dependent on “getting the record deal.” When I was coming up, getting the big record deal, that was what everybody was shooting for. I grew up at a time where, like, Paul McCartney was 22 when he did Sgt Pepper. Or however old he was. Maybe that was Brian Wilson when he did Pet Sounds. I grew up thinking that it was all a thing of youth. Art was a thing of youth, but art really just does span over the ages. As long as you’re growing, you can continue to express yourself. I think when you’re younger and there’s people around you, they’re expecting you to have a bigger audience and to make a lot of money and be successful. But as you get older, you realize that the biggest success is the joy it brings you. If it’s bringing you joy, do it. [Do it] if there’s five people in the club or 500 or 5,000.
I was on three different tours last year playing guitar for Panic! At The Disco. Actually, just two tours last year playing guitar for Panic! At The Disco, and then doing my tour. I was playing hockey arenas around the world—10,000 to 18,000 capacity arenas. If there was 5,000 people at that show, they would have been fucked. But if there were 5,000 people at my show, that would have changed my life and it would have been the most incredible thing ever. But the shows were equally as joyful and equally as rewarding. I played 200 capacity rock clubs in London that were jammed—jammed to capacity and it was so much fun. It was right up close and personal with the fans and it was so much fun. Then playing in arenas with Panic! At The Disco, I was in Kiss. There was fire behind me and all this shit going on. It was awesome. All that is to say is that the spectrum of success and the spectrum of joy is just so wide.
MR: For Paul McCarthy, where did you come up with the name? I’m assuming it’s a reference to Paul McCartney.
MV: Well, no, it’s a reference to Paul McCarthy, the artist. He’s a visual artist. I’m a big fan of what he does and he’s grossly popular and grossly misunderstood at the same time. His stuff’s really gross, I really love him. And it’s also about Paul McCartney, but in a side way. It’s a bit of an origami bird, that one. There’s a lot going on in [Paul McCarthy]. At the end of the day, people ask me what is that song about and I just say it’s a fun song about what you think it’s about. I don’t really know. Like at a certain point, I kind of let go and let the song take me where it was going to take me.
There’s something about this record where it was a bit of a turning point for me. The last three records I made, I have reclaimed my artist-self, and I’m a dad, and like I said, I was an A&R guy for a while, and I’ve been a producer. I’ve been a songwriter for movies. I’ve done a bunch of things. Throughout my whole life, the continuous thread has been that I’m an artist, but I haven’t allowed myself to just do that. This record was really me just turning a corner and saying, “Okay 2023, this is the year that I’m going back to when I was 13 years old and I was just starting out.” I was getting in vans and I was playing shows and that’s exactly what I’m doing.
MR: “Water Makes Me Sick” definitely sticks out as kind of an oddball on the album without being out of place. My first thought on hearing it was that it sounds like the parts of Sabbath that people don’t steal from. People usually just drive into the ground the heaviness and kind of forget that there’s hooks there. It definitely reminded me of the hooky side of Sabbath.
MV: That’s cool, man. It’s crazy how hooky that band is. [Tony Iommi] is the riff master. When I was a kid, when I was 13, songs came from riffs. I only learned to be the sensitive singer-songwriter because that was the logical next step. But even Kurt, speaking of Nirvana, all that stuff is riff-based. I hadn’t really been doing that for a little bit and I found my way back to it. Now if I have a song that’s written on acoustic guitar, and it’s a cool well-written constructed singer-songwriter tune, I’ll find the riff it needs. There needs to be a riff. It’s part of the song. The way that a bridge might be necessary or something like that, for me, I’ve got to find where the riff is.
MR: From the album, “Forever Proof” into “You Put The Light Back In My Face,” that back-to-back punch, was, for me, the highlight of the album. It’s interesting because you go a lot of places without losing the plot, which I kind of feel is your forte.
MV: Oh, thanks, man. The goal for me isn’t to make Sgt Pepper, it’s to make Paranoid. I love how that record you drop the needle and it’s all one thing. It feels like one thing. It feels like okay the band’s here and they plug in and then they just play it. I think on Side A, every song is in the key of E. I think there’s nine songs on that record. I’m pretty sure eight of them are in the key of E. I love that. That’s my goal, to make something beautiful and economical like that. Or maybe With The Beatles, but not Sgt Pepper. I’m not trying to make that. Even Nevermind, it’s a perfect record.
MR: Are there certain things that you feel are the keys to good production?
MV: The truth is, it changes. It changes every time. With Panic! At The Disco, Brendan, who’s the lead guy—he was a little burnt out from being the king, pretty much. He was at the top of the charts with the record before the one we did. It was really difficult for him for a myriad of reasons. He was burnt out. When he started hanging with me, the premise was let’s just jam. Let’s not talk about what we’re doing. Going back to my whole thing, you don’t need to call me a producer. I’m not a side man. I get in there in a way that’s more like a psychologist would. Not like I’m fucking with people’s minds [laughs] because psychologists don’t do that. Psychologists listen and then they help guide you. So I’m more like a guide. I could tell what he needed was just to jam. He’s such a great musician and he’s an incredible drummer, so he just needs to play.
MR: What do you feel is the best starting point in your catalog if someone’s just diving in?
MV: I’ve made very acoustic records. I’ve made piano records. Riff-based records. I tell people to start at a record called Hang On Mike. It was the last record I made for Sony. It came out in 2003 or 2004. That’s the record to start with. I think there’s really good songs and really cool records before that as well, but Hang On Mike is a good starting point.
Not that I’m John Lennon at all, but at one point during Double Fantasy, he was being interviewed and they were asking him about the process of recording music. They did it at The Hit Factory in New York and he’s sitting at the console, “It’s like 24 channels on the console. It’s unheard of. All this EQ. We didn’t have this. We had four or five faders when we did Sgt Pepper.” The guy was like, “Would you do any of The Beatles songs over if you could?” “Yeah, if I could, I’d do ‘Strawberry Fields’ over. We really didn’t get that one right.”
MR: Is there anything that we haven’t covered that you’d like to talk about?
MV: The tour is a big deal for me. When you hit a certain age, I think the world tells you it’s time to stop doing certain things. But maybe the world is really you and your own insecurities. I’m not totally sure. But for a while, I just didn’t think touring was an option because I have a family and I need to earn money and it’s really hard to make money on the road. I tried it in the spring. I did an experiment and it worked. I made money, and the band made money, and it wasn’t a big favor fest. Fans loved it and people came out and I realized this is a huge thing for me, to meet people and travel and sing and play. It’s a massive thing for me. I just forgot how much I did it when I was younger.
One thing to add is that the tour is really important to me and just to get out there and play. Have you ever heard the 10,000 hours theory? I for sure put in my 10,000 hours, but I have this theory that this is a new set of 10,000 hours that I’ve got to put in. It’s really helped me look at it that way because the world doesn’t owe us anything. We owe the world everything. That’s how I look at it. It’s such a privilege to get out there and for the band to be like, yes, I want to play with you and, yes, that money works. It’s not a favor, but I’m not getting rich either. That money works. Yes, we’ll sleep on the blow up mattress. Yes, I’ll drive the next eight hours. It’s like, wow, who are these people? What a great world. We all want to do this crazy shit just to get to the gig so we can plug in without a sound check.