MARCH 2011 COVER STORY – Pickin’ and a Grinnin’: The Ramshackle Ballad of Mike Brown

1978605_10203336386308424_498247542_nEveryone has a story, but not all stories are noteworthy. New York singer/songwriter Mike Brown has a lot of stories and they’re all good ones.

I was introduced to Brown’s story watching the History Channel’s “American Pickers.”

The show about two junk collectors is a regular Monday night event for me. One evening, the stars of the show stumbled upon a 1930s ribbon microphone, but didn’t know anything about it. So they had their people track down someone who would appraise it for them. That person was Brown.

“They saw some pictures of the studio online and decide to come say hello,” Brown modestly said of the “American Pickers” appearance. Since the show, which has been re-aired by the History Channel several times over, Brown’s email inbox has been overflowing, but outside of that, everything seems to be the same for the singer/songwriter.

“I’m pretty isolated out here, so I don’t notice that much of a change outside of what I do. A few people at the bar seemed excited, but musically, things are the same as ever.”

The singer/songwriter/producer is a bit of a “junk collector” himself – only he collects vintage instruments of all varieties, restores them and plays or sells them. Currently, Brown says he has over 1,000 instruments in his 1800s church, where he lives and works.

“My grandfather was a woodworker, so maybe I inheirited it from him. I like fixing and using something that most people would have thrown away,” he said.
The aforementioned church – built in 1828 and located “in the middle of nowhere” – functions as his studio, appropriately named Temperamental Recordings.

“The name sort of says it all,” Brown said. “It’s filled with a bunch of ‘well-seasoned’
instruments and recording gear. I’ve produced, engineered and played on a bunch of records here that I’m really proud of.”

Some of those musicians include Lissie, Thieving Irons, Son of the Sun, and Lowlight, just to name a few. However, it was long before buying the old church that Brown learned his craft of recording.

He entered into music the usual way by taking piano lessons as a kid, even though Brown says his “parents thought he was tone deaf.” He kept with music, and at the age of 13, Brown received his first guitar and fell in love.

When asked how many instruments he plays now, Brown nonchlantly says “anything you put in my hands at this point.”americanpickers_toohottohandle8

Through the years, the talented muscian kept playing. Then, at 21-years-old, he devised a plan … a unique plan. Brown made a list of all the musicians he admired and would like to record with someday. So he packed up his van with the essentials, including music gear and cheap recording equipment, and drove to all 50 states to record a song with someone. Well, technically he had to fly to Hawaii and Alaska, but once there, he rented a car and drove around and recorded.

As Brown drove around, he lived in his van for six years, trying to achieve his goal.
Obviously, it wasn’t easy. When asked if he wanted to give up and go home, Brown quickly answered, “Constantly. Waking up in 15-degree weather in a truckstop parking lot just sucks. But then I’d be in a studio with someone I grew up listening to, and it sort of made it OK again.”

Brown wouldn’t know where to start naming all of the musicans he’s recorded with. But a few of hereos stood out. He laid down tracks with Garth Hudson (The Band), Jay Bennett (Wilco), Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum), and Eddie Kramer (legendary producer). The end result of the long hard journey is Brown’s album American Hotel.

“Everyone on that record is an influence,” Brown says. “We recorded in a ton of strange places…truckstop parking lots, out of the back of my van, the back of the Gwar tour bus, and there were some pretty amazing studios, too.”

As impossible it may seem to live in your van for six years, Brown had an amazing experience, a life changing experience. He has unbelievable stories for the rest of his life.

When asked his best memory of his journey, Brown said “hanging out at 3 a.m. in a cabin in Park City, Utah with Garth Hudson and his wife talking about The Band and eating dinner after playing the Sundance Film Festival. The worst stories? Well, I’d tell you after a few drinks first.”

As a singer/songwriter, musician, and producer, Mike Brown still has many irons in the fire, and he plans to do it all over again.

“I want to get back out on the road soon,” Brown said. “I just bought a 1963 Dodge motorhome, so I think touring is in order. I also have three other records just sitting ready to be put out.”