A few weeks back, I set my camera up over my drawing board, put on some headphones, played Mike Viola’s “Good Ideas Grow On Trees” on repeat and made a drawing.
If you’ve ever heard a Mike Viola album, you know that his ability to craft perfect pop is as good as it gets and his smartly economical production is the kind of thing that makes a person want to listen again and again. Viola is an artist, a pop scholar and a craftsman. His albums and his performances look forward and back at the same time, displaying a root system of influences and a constant growth in new directions. His most recent album, Lurch, is full of tuneful and breezy songs tinged with the subtly submerged melancholy that is the essential ingredient to all classic pop.
A little over a year ago, in February of 2008, Viola had a one month residency at Joe’s Pub, playing a late show every Friday night at 11:30. Live and in person, augmented by his recent collaborator Kelly Jones (whose astonishing album, SheBANG!, Mike co-wrote and co-produced) and their top-notch band, Viola delivers energetic versions of his songbook with the kind of amazing harmonies that rarely happen outside of a studio.
But what’s really special about a Mike Viola show is the sheer unpredictability of it. Viola likes to hijack his shows, take them over to the dangerous border between self-indulgent digression and sheer genius, and walk that line like a man balancing on a wire. At any moment, Viola and his band might change an arrangement or rip in to a cover of a song they don’t know if they can play until they’re playing it. At other times he’ll improvise a song from scratch, singing lyrics and calling out chord-changes as they occur to him. Sparked by a random comment from the band or a shout from someone in the crowd, Viola can deliver those perfect pop tunes out of thin air. His shows can sprawl, appear dangerously out of control, seem to have lost the thread and still send an audience home with the feeling that they had been part of the magic appearance of something singular and unique.
I’m the archival artist at Joe’s, which means that I draw a lot of the performers during their sets and soundchecks. I like to draw in ink, without any pencils and without any planning. I want my drawings to be live reactions to the moment; drawn improvisations, immediate responses. I don’t like to rip out pages and start again; I like to be surprised by where my mistakes and impulses lead me. I was introduced to Mike’s music last year, late to the party, but glad to have been invited, staying up and discovering a form of pop-perfection in a constant state of becoming that resonated with the way I like to draw.
All of which is to say that when Mike pulled out his acoustic guitar and I heard “Good Ideas Grow On Trees” for the first time at that first show, I knew I wanted to create a video for it. I am often asked how long it takes to do a drawing and my general response is that it is not about time. That said, it took me 45 minutes to make the drawing of this song, but it took me over a year before I actually sat down and did it. That is because, as Mike Viola–pop craftsman, under-appreciated genius, and legend in any other period of pop save the lifetime he landed in–sings, “Good ideas do not fall out of thin air: good ideas grow on trees.”
Mike Viola (with Kelly Jones) is appearing again at Joe’s Pub for a late night show, April 30.