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Hear the sounds of Michael Pickett

July 3, 2014

Laying out vocal tracks in the his studio.

Tell us a bit about yourself

My name is Michael Pickett. I record and perform adventurous kinds of rock under the name Pickett while living in Colville with my son. I market my albums and soundtrack music mostly online, though I do play a fair amount of live shows. Originally I'm from Alaska, but went to school in Pasadena and Hollywood, studying music for TV and film, music business and guitar. For about six-years, I lived in southern California, playing everything from rock and reggae to big band music there. I've been in the Stevens County area on and off for about 20 years, building an audience over the Internet and through live gigs.

How would you describe your music?

I just got a review from a Swedish radio station that said: “If Van Halen and Def Leppard had a baby, and that baby wanted to be Indiana Jones...it would sound like this.” I'd say that's a pretty good description of my life and most of my music.

Apart from making music, what do you do?

A lot of my time is spent raising my son, Gabriel, as a single dad. Gabe is seven-years-old, and going into second grade at Riverwood School next year. I'm on the board of directors for Riverwood, as well as working with everything from fundraising and PR to vacuuming and maintenance at the school. Raising him really is my main vocation right now. Beyond that, I'm in my 20th year writing music reviews for the North Columbia Monthly magazine, and I'm in my 10th year playing in the local band, Firecreek, with guys I love. Gabe and my folks and I grow a garden, cut wood and do a lot of hiking and outdoor stuff.
I used to do a lot of work as a graphic designer, having been trained in graphics in the early 90’s. I started doing t-shirts for the Pasadena Rose Parade, and then landed a deal doing various designs for the rock group, Boston, for about six-years. Boston was a huge influence on me musically, so that was a wonderful experience. I made quite a bit of our living through various kinds of design up until about 2009, working for far-flung clients and companies I'd never met face-to-face. Between the general economy and elected officials brokering deals to export jobs offshore, I found myself going from 1,200 logo designs in 2007 down to less than 100 by 2009. I still do graphic design for my music and for a few clients, but it has taken a back seat to building my music business.

Where does your inspiration come from?

I don't always know for sure. Guitars, movies, road-trips, or maybe the sound a blender makes. Song origins typically fall into a few different categories for me. When I was a kid, playing guitar four or five hours a day in Alaska, I would stumble across a melody or riff and suddenly lyrics would just tumble out of nowhere. I'd scribble them down on a napkin. I have a huge file of napkins and bits of paper with song ideas on them from the sixth grade through college. So sometimes playing guitar will suddenly give you a song idea.
Another source was simply driving down the road, hiking or traveling and getting a song title or melody out of nowhere, playing inside your head. A lot of my music starts with the title and a chorus for some reason. So while I used to write that down on another napkin, I'll now put it in my phone or my laptop and hum the melody in a quick-and-dirty recording. Sometimes, Gabe will say something that gives me a whole concept for a song. Ninety percent of my last album, 'Superflow', was written that way. Kids are great at reminding you what is best about life. I think he teaches me more than I teach him sometimes.
Inspiration is the great adventure. You never know exactly how or where it will strike, but you had better be ready to keep a record of what it gives you, or it can be gone in a flash. Which is why it's important to be able to capture ideas in the shower, where a lot of songs tend to appear.

Who has been more influential in your craft?

Without a doubt, it would be my parents. Besides being trained classical pianists and conducting vocal and instrumental ensembles, my folks homesteaded in rural Alaska in the 60’s. Even as a little kid, I knew my life was extraordinary in that way...living without power or running water for the first years of my life, in this impossibly beautiful, dangerous place that still feels like my only true home. Their lives and adventures and musicality informed my own. Beyond that, I grew up on a variety of music, from symphonic to the jazz-pop of Les Paul and Mary Ford; eventually being drawn to progressive rock of the late 70’s in bands like Styx and Rush. Once I heard Rush, it was all over. I just felt like I was home. To this day, no band moves me like Rush does...it's like I'm 12 again. Those guys simply get better with age. 40-years, dozens of albums and over 6,000 gigs later and they're still untouchable as musicians.
After that, we started seeing a complete reinvention of the electric guitar through Eddie Van Halen, who was an incredible influence on my guitar sound and general addiction. I grew up in a great time, where artists actually knew how to play and sing in tune. So guys like Van Halen, Alex Lifeson, Randy Rhoads and Steve Lukather set the bar incredibly high in terms of tone, technique and taste.
While I was in college, we had this amazing athletic coach named Harry Sneider. He had worked with Arnold Swarzenegger, Dwight Stone and others, and he worked in this weight room I frequented. I trimmed trees to pay my way through college, and it was taking a toll on me, physically. Coach Sneider would give me workouts to keep my body loose, but he also insisted that I record my first demo, which became my first album. He would not let it go, and so off I went. Technology was limited in the late 80’s for poor college students wanting to record, but I did the whole album, and Harry Sneider was a huge influence in that regard.
It wasn't until later, that my friend (and Marcus mayor), Fran Bolt, said I should consider that I might be a singer. I contributed vocals to most of the bands I had been in, and I had grown up in an age of super singers, like Randy Jackson of Zebra, Rob Halford, Robert Plant, Peter Cetera and the late, great Brad Delp, but I didn't really consider myself a singer. I still remember the first time I accidentally heard 'More Than a Feeling' by Boston, and it wasn't the guitars, but Brad Delp's vocals that utterly changed my life. No exaggeration. I was 11-years-old, heard Brad singing these impossible parts, and had to walk around outside my house after the song was done, trying to understand what had just happened to me. I've never heard anyone sing like that before or since. Working for his band years later was like some sort of karmic gift. When Brad died, my parents saw it on the news, but didn't tell me, because they knew I had a Firecreek gig that night. I found out from my band mate, Vinny. I don't even remember the rest of that gig. I was just numb. Brad was so influential to me.
So, Fran sort of clued me in that all the vocal influences that meant so much to me were a roadmap as to who I really was as an artist. I can't hold a candle to Brad or guys like Joseph Williams and Randy Jackson from Zebra, but my efforts to try and sound like them helped me find my own voice.
When did you know you were an artist?
Probably in the womb. It was probably loud in there, poor Mom. Actually, I grew up in a very strict religious environment, so while I likely knew I was an artist even as a child, it was discouraged in a lot of ways because rock music as a whole was associated with forked tongues, horns and pitchforks and such. I think it just became something I couldn't ignore when I became an adult. I had all of these skills, but the real acceptance of being a recording and performing artist took me finally abandoning our soul-crushing religious franchise for good. My family was incredibly supportive in me accepting who and what I really was, sometimes more accepting than I was.

‘There’s just no excuse to be in a creative rut…’

How would you describe your creative process?

There's no set way I take on a project. A lot of my music tends to draw from classic rock with reggae and other overtones...but I have also done commercial and soundtrack music, and I actually have a whole album of weird, ambient sci-fi music that I've never released, called 'Icemine Firelight'. I've sold pieces from that album for use in indie films and multimedia, and it was a lot of fun to do.
With the rock stuff, I usually have a melody, chorus or what we call 'a hook'. From there, I get inside the concept of the song and figure out what needs to be said and played to make it work. Usually a cheesy electronic drum track comes first, to keep the whole thing in time. I lay that down in a laptop either at home, at a restaurant like the Little Gallea (my favorite eatery), or out in the woods somewhere. After that, I record guitar parts, seeing what does and doesn't work. When I have the guitars basically in place, I usually start to sing two lead vocals, in two different ways, to see what fits the overall feel of the song. Usually one of the two of them works, or I cut a third, and then I start singing--literally--dozens or even a hundred vocal harmonies on choruses. It's the most fun part of recording. I sing and sing until I need to go back to the Little Gallea to drink iced tea because my pipes are shot. Then I listen to it all with fresh ears and start getting rid of stuff that doesn't work.
By then, I've got real, slamming drum tracks coming in from someone who plays drums better than I do, I lay down bass parts, and put guitar solos or fills in if the song needs them. I don't labor over guitar solos like I did when I was 20. I like them to do something special for the song, maybe show off a little, and then get the hell out and back to the meat of the song. Like a music teacher once said: 'Nobody dances to guitar solos'. Once I'm done mixing it and getting all the levels right, the whole thing gets mailed off to a mastering house in New Jersey, it comes back and I release it as a single, perhaps make a video for the song with local friends who act in my videos and make them look cool, or add the song to an existing album in the works. It's a blast.

If you could peek inside the studio of any musician (dead or alive), who would it be?

Oh, man...I'm not even sure where to start. From a production standpoint, a guy like Mutt Lange--though out of vogue with people who gravitate to slop over superior arranging and production firepower--would be right up there. Hanging out with Rush. I'd probably just be in the corner, weeping like a tiny child. They'd throw me right out of the studio. My heart still hurts thinking about Brad Delp's passing. Being in a room with him, hearing him sing all those harmonies. Wow, it would be amazing. We have a neighbor to the north in B.C. named Devin Townsend. An absolutely mind-melting singer, guitarist and composer. Watching over his shoulder would just be insane. I know I'm supposed to say 'The Beatles' or 'Elvis' or whatever, but that really doesn't do much for me beyond a certain point. A producer like David Foster, a composer like John Williams, his son Joseph Williams, Atli Ovarrsen, the new singers in Boston are awesome and really nice guys. Or I'd go watch my good friend, Dave Keeley, build guitars. Any or all of those would be cool.

What are you currently listening to?

I have this massive YouTube playlist with my dad's online friend (and former Zappa/Missing Persons keyboardist) Chuck Wild, alongside the French artist Sysyphe, then Enya, Devin Townsend, Henry Mancini, Judas Priest, Toto (you can laugh, but there are no hotter studio guns than the members of Toto) Godspeed, You Black Emperor and a bunch more. I warm up and sing in the car to Chicago, Def Leppard, Alan Parsons, Boston and Journey. Gabe loves Owl City, so we listen to them a fair amount. Rush. If I'm not listening to Rush, then there's a problem, and I probably need to go to the hospital.

How do you get out of your creative ruts?

There's just no excuse to be in a creative rut. There's never been a better time to be a recording artist. I could make a recording in my car, using my laptop and some dental floss. It's ridiculous. See, I grew up during the 80s, when we all hoped we could save enough money to somehow afford a terrible-but-expensive cassette multi-track unit and record our ideas on a mere four (hiss-filled) tracks. That's how I made my whole first demo/album. The first real studio I recorded in was a TV studio I worked at in Pasadena, and the gear in the room was worth over a quarter-million dollars at that time. That gear couldn't touch what anyone with $300 can go buy in a laptop today.
You'll hear people say: 'you need a studio, you need tubes to make your guitar sound like everyone else's guitar'. I laugh openly at all that. To me, that is the creative rut. I purposely use amps everyone else hates, and I get sounds no one else gets. Working for Boston, they made their own amps by hand, called Rockman amps. So I got a hold of one of those, and used it for years on the road with Firecreek. Over 500 gigs here in the Pacific Northwest. A lot of people laughed at that amp. They weren't laughing by the end of the first set. In fact, I still get offered a lot of money for that amp.
Gabe has a baby stroller autographed by Capt. Jonathan Hillstrand from 'Deadliest Catch', whom he met when he was still in diapers. It says: 'Shut Up and Fish!' I say: 'Shut Up and Play!' Don't listen to fashion. Don't listen to fads. Just get it done.

What do you think people can do to support their local music scene?

We have such a great community of local artists. I can't even name them all. I think people expect artists to be in competition with each other, like the Sunset Strip was in the 70s, with Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoads playing at dueling clubs across the street from one another. I don't view it that way at all. I like to go hear my friends play when I can, and I encourage people to go out and hear local artists and put money in the tip jar, buy albums, get on mailing lists, and spread the word about music they like. Even our rural community here has incredible artists.
But here's an even bigger question: what is 'local' now? I sell music to people online that I never meet face-to-face. Go get online and start to listen to what's being made all over the planet. Even if you don't feel compelled to buy a song or an album, just share the music you dig with five friends. That can have an artist blow up worldwide. Look at our friend, Allen Stone, just down the road. No major label, not out there trying to be a boy band...and just by being awesome at what he loves and having people spread the word, he's an international success right out of Chewelah. How cool is that?
Seriously, sharing what you like, whether live or online is incredibly helpful for artists. If everyone who hears a song they like shares it with five or ten people, an artist suddenly adds to a fan base that they're growing...and you had a part in that. You made that happen. You suddenly have ownership in the success of an artist, and--believe me--we don't forget that. I have a few power fans, one named Julie and another named Diane. They're always sharing my music, my videos, my gigging schedule, and that goes out onto the Internet and reaches people I couldn't reach on my own. And I thank them by sending them free tracks and stuff no one else has, because, at that point, it's not just me making things happen, it's fans making things happen. It's you making things happen.
I've said it before: There's never been a better time to be an independent artist.
Check out Pickett and download free tracks at: http://www.m-overdrive.com/pickett

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